Mikhail Bakhtin

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Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Todorov, Tzvetan. “History of Literature.” In Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, translated by Wlad Godzich, pp. 75-93. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in French in 1981, Todorov discusses Bakhtin's theory of literary history as found in several of his works. The critic summarizes Bakhtin's theories of genre and discusses Bakhtin's concept of the “dialogic” in narrative and history—the plurality of competing languages, discourses, and voices within a single literary or historical work.]


An initial hypothesis concerning the history of literature is formulated by Voloshinov/Bakhtin in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language; it is a pure projection of the typology of styles that he had just drawn up (which follows Wölfflin and his opposition of the linear versus pictural). The variants of these two great stylistic types correspond to well-delinated historical periods.

Summing up all we have said about the possible tendencies in the dynamic relation between authorial discourse and the discourse of the other, we can distinguish the following periods: authoritarian dogmatism, characterized by a linear and impersonal monumental style in the transmission of the discourse of the other (the middle ages); rationalist dogmatism, with an even clearer linear style (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries); realistic and critical individualism, with its pictural style, and a tendency to inject, into the other's discourse, the replies and commentaries of the author (late eighteenth century and nineteenth century); and finally, relativistic individualism, with the disintegration of the author's own context (contemporary period).


These four great periods of literary history betoken, in effect, a moderate and an extreme form of each of the two styles, the linear and the pictural.

The context of this opposition will remain relatively stable throughout Bakhtin's work; but its role will begin to alter as early as in the next text devoted to a study of the same issue, namely “Discourse in the Novel.” It could be said that a hypothesis concerning history places itself, depending on its ambitions, in one of three stages or degrees: either, in the case of a weak hypothesis (degree zero), one limits oneself to a history of events, that is to the simple recording of facts, without worrying about their articulation; or—next degree—one develops an analytic history, where one makes use of a limited number of categories to describe historical facts; or finally, in the case of the strongest hypothesis, one practices systematic history, and one is no longer content to analyze events by means of the same categories, but one asserts the existence of an order in change, which, ultimately, could lead to foreseeing the future: the Hegelian model is the best known example of such a hypothesis.

The formulation advanced by Voloshinov/Bakhtin put him in the ranks of the proponents of the systematic approach: not only were all styles defined by the opposition linear-pictural, but there was also a direction to the evolution: we go precisely from medieval linearity to modern picturality. It will be noted, though, that for Voloshinov/Bakhtin there is no third, synthetic term as we find in Hegel, and this fact is revealing; for him, oppositions will always have an unsurmountable character.

Still, in “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin moves from the strong, systematic hypothesis to a weaker, analytic one. There are still two stylistic poles, but both have been present since Antiquity: the “linear” is exemplified by the Hellenistic novel (Bakhtin's favorite example is Leucippe and Clitophoń of Achilles Tatius); the “pictural” by a series of lesser genres that lead, in Antiquity, to two famous works, the Satyricon of Petronius and The Golden...

(This entire section contains 8877 words.)

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Ass of Apuleius. Each of these two styles undergoes multiple transformations, instances of which can be found equally in all periods. For example, the medieval romance, the Baroque novel, the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century, all belong to the first pole; the fabliau, the picaresque novel, the comic novel, though their contemporaries, all belong to the second pole. The only exception to this nonsystematic schema, and it is far from insignificant, is to be found in the present period, which, according to Bakhtin, is dominated entirely by what he called the pictural.

The tenor of the opposition may have remained that of the conceptual duality introduced by Wölfflin, but it has become, at the same time, more precise and more specifically literary. Bakhtin believes that, in every epoch and in all circumstances, there occurs a dialogue of styles, based on heterology. But this dialogue can take place in absentia, that is between the homogeneous style of the work and the other dominant styles of the period (external heterology); or in praesentia, within the work, which thus contains the heterology within itself; the first dialogue obviously corresponds to linear style and the second, to the pictural.

The primary characteristic [of the first tradition] is that it is monolingual and stylistically monolithic (in a more or less consistent fashion); heterology remains outside the novel; nonetheless it determines it, acting as a dialogical background to which the language and the world of the novel react polemically and apologetically. … The second lineage, to which belong the greatest representatives of the novel as a genre (its greatest subgenres as well as the greatest individual works) injects social heteroglossia into the body of the novel and leaves to it the orchestration of its meaning, frequently giving up altogether any pure and unmediated authorial discourse.


This opposition could also be described in the dynamic of its becoming:

Novels of the first stylistic lineage approach heterology from above, it is as if they descend unto it (the sentimental novel stands apart here, somewhere between heterology and the higher genres). Novels of the second lineage, on the contrary, approach heterology from below: they rise from the depths of heterology to overtake the higher spheres of literary language. In both instances, the point of view of heterology prevails upon that of literariness.


I shall make an exception here to my rule of avoiding comparisons between Bakhtin and later writers because a comparison seems so much called for. In Mimesis, written some ten years after “Discourse in the Novel” (but published thirty years earlier), Erich Auerbach also reviews the history of European literature in the light of the opposition of two stylistic attitudes: the separation of styles (Stiltrennung) and the mixture of styles (Stilmischung); both are equally present since Antiquity, their prototypes being the Iliad for the first and the Bible for the second (Auerbach does not confine himself to the novel); at every moment of history one can find representative examples of each of the two attitudes, but modern times are marked by a victory of the mixture of styles. Naturally, Auerbach could not be ignorant of Wölfflin's opposition, where the second term goes beyond the Baroque to characterize the modern period). The closeness between Bakthin and Auerbach is also apparent in their common, and continuing, interest in the problem of the literary representation of the real. The author of Mimesis would not have disavowed the titles that Bakhtin was giving to his manuscripts: “The Bildungsroman and its Signification in the History of Realism”; “Francois Rabelais in the History of Realism.”

In subsequent works, Bakhtin will again alter his formulations while retaining the opposition. The same penchant for hypothetical reconstructions of a past inaccessible to observation—a penchant that led him, a few years earlier, to embrace the theories of Marr upon the origin of language, leads him, at the time of his work on the chronotope, to an image of primitive man and the distinctive features of his mental life. This primitive world is characterized by working and living collectively; by the importance of the role granted to natural rhythms (the growth of plants, the change of the seasons); the orientation toward the future; the domination of the concrete; continuous and cyclical time; the equal value of the elements of life. With the rise of class society, this model of life will be abandoned and repressed; but it will reemerge in the form of a popular culture opposed to official culture (cf. 23:356-66).

We may well question both the mythical image reconstructed by Bakhtin, and its identification, in the historical period, with a popular culture (wasn't culture, in the strict sense, especially in those times, the preserve of an elite fundamentally alien to the “people”?); but we must take note of the shift away from a stylistic opposition between the linear and the pictural, or between a dialogism in absentia or one in praesentia, to an anthropological and cultural opposition between official and popular culture, or, as Bakhtin puts it in his Rabelais, where the most complete description of this popular culture is to be found, between serious culture and the culture of laughter (smekhovaja).

[In the Renaissance and the Middle Ages] an immense world of forms and manifestations of laughter opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture.


In the chapter added to the second edition of the Dostoevsky, devoted to the problem of genre, we can find Bakhtin's last formulations on this issue:

It can be said, with some restrictions to be sure, that medieval man in a way led two lives: one official, monolithically serious and somber; beholden to strict hierarchical order; filled with fear, dogmatism, devotion, and piety; the other, of carnival and the public place, free; full of ambivalent laughter, sacrileges, profanations of all things sacred, disparagement and unseemly behavior, familiar contact with everybody and everything.


This popular and comic culture is apparent in several forms: (1) rites and spectacles, such as carnival; (2) comic verbal works; (3) the familiar discourse of the public place. Of these forms, Bakhtin has a special appreciation for carnival, because it concentrates and reveals all the features of comic popular culture. “Carnival, with its whole complex system of images, was the purest and fullest expression of comic popular culture” (25:90). Hence, the frequent use of the term “carnivalesque,” applied by synecdoche to the whole of this culture. A synonymous expression, to be found in the Rabelais, is “grotesque realism”; the strong term here is “grotesque,” which is opposed to “classical” (making the latter a member of the series: “official,” “serious,” etc.).

The Rabelais provides a list of characteristic features of popular and comic culture: a material and corporeal principle of life; disparagement and debasement, hence parody; ambivalence: confusion of death with rebirth; the necessary relation to time and becoming. In the book on Dostoevsky, nearly the same table can be found; its elements are: free and familiar contact between persons; the attraction of the eccentric, the surprising, the bizarre; misalliances, the reunion of opposites; profanation and debasement (see 32:164-65). The essence of carnival lies in change, in death-rebirth, in destructive-creative time; carnivalesque images are basically ambivalent.

These characteristics are most directly observable in a certain period: the Middle Ages (and, in part, the Renaissance). They can be extrapolated, however (we are still in analytic history), and their avatars identified in any period: the carnivalesque is foreshadowed by the comicoserious genres of Antiquity (the most important of which are the Socratic dialogues and Menippean satire), and its highest expression is to be found in the modern period in the polyphonic novel of Dostoevsky.

In his evocation of two stylistic lines, turned into two forms of culture, Bakhtin does not act like an impartial historian; his sympathies for the mixture of styles and for “popular” culture are obvious. He justifies himself in part by recalling that the popular and heterogeneous tradition has been largely ignored—for reasons easily comprehensible: history and scholarship partake of the same “official,” “serious,” and “classical” ideology; as a result they insist on those things that approximate their ideal. In this view, Bakhtin's work would remedy a lacuna, hence his concentration on the description of “popular” culture.

But this explanation of a quantitative predominance does not justify the value judgments that always favor the same cultural pole, and neither does the frequent implication that the “people” constitute a supreme value. Were we to accept it, it would be easy to assert that leaving the “safety valve” of the carnivalesque open is the best means for the dominant class to perpetuate its tyranny. The explanation of Bakhtin's obvious preference is, I think, somewhat different, and calls into play his epistemological, psychological, and aesthetic beliefs: human existence itself is a “mixture of styles, an irreducible heterogeneity.” The representation will work only if there is an analogy between the represented object and the representing medium; art and literature, forms of representation, will work better the truer they are, that is the more they resemble their object, heterogeneous human existence. That is the reason why, ultimately, the “pictural” tradition is preferable to the “linear” one.


“Poetics must begin with genre” (10:175).

This precept occurs as early as the Medvedev/Bakhtin book of 1928; genres are a constant preoccupation of Bakhtinian thought and come to figure for it as the key concept of literary history. It will be recalled that one of Bakhtin's projects of the fifties and sixties was entitled The Genres of Discourse (only a brief sketch remains). The attraction of Bakhtin in his youth for this notion is easily explainable: it fits in well with his two initial methodological choices; the nonseparation of form and content, and the predominance of the social over the individual. Because genre is, first of all, on the side of the collective and the social. And Bakhtin will explain his interest in the “stylistics of genre” in the following terms:

The separation of style and language from genre is largely responsible for the fact that only individual overtones of style, or those of literary currents, are the privileged objects of study, while the basic social tone is ignored. The great historical destinies of literary discourse, tied to the destiny of genres, are overshadowed by the petty vicissitudes of stylistic modification, themselves tied to individual artists and particular currents. For this reason, stylistics has been deprived of an authentic philosophical and sociological approach.


Stylistics must become a stylistics of genres, and thus integrate itself into sociology. “The true poetics of genre can only be a sociology of genre” (10:183).

Genre is a sociohistorical as well as a formal entity. Transformations in genre must be considered in relation to social changes.

All these particularities of the novel … are conditioned by a moment of breach in the history of European humanity: the breach by which it emerges from a socially closed and semipatriarchal state, to enter new circumstances that promote international and interlinguistic links and relations.


Second, the notion of genre is more fertile, and therefore more important, than those of school or current; precisely because, one could imagine, it always has a formal reality as well.

The historians of literature do not see, beyond the surface agitation and splashes of color, the great and essential destinies of literature and language, whose chief, foremost characters are the genres, while currents and schools are lesser characters.


The privileged position of the notion of genre is linked to this mediating function.

The utterance and its types, that is, the discursive genres, are the transmission belts between social history and linguistic history.


At the same time, it could be asserted, with some regret, that Bakhtin seems unaware of the problem posed by the use of the same term (“genre”) for a linguistic and translinguistic reality on one hand, and a historical one on the other; he uses the word equally in both contexts, thus giving rise to some problems, as we shall see in the case of the novel.

The unseverable bond between a genre and its linguistic reality makes it always possible to relate literary genres to other discursive genres. For the notion of genre is not the exclusive prerogative of literature; it is rooted in the everyday use of language.

The question, the exclamation, the command, the request, those are the most typical everyday complete utterances. … In salon chatter, light and without consequences, where everyone is at home, and where the main differentiation (and separations) among those present (those whom we call the “audience”) is between men and women—in this situation a particular form of generic completion occurs. … Another type of completion is worked out in the conversation between husband and wife, brother and sister. … Every stable daily situation comprises an audience organized in specific fashion, and therefore includes a definite repertory of small everyday genres.


This omnipresence of genres has nonetheless not prevented widespread ignorance of their existence (particularly with respect to intimate and familiar genres); Bakhtin himself in fact did not go beyond the formulation of this general program; we find in his writings the recommendation to study “the preliterary germs of literature (in language and in rite)” (38:345) as well as the idea that a distinction must be drawn between the “primary” genres of language and the “secondary” genres of literature (a distinction that parallels Andre Jolles's opposition of “simple forms” and “complex forms”):

It is particularly important to draw attention here to the absolutely essential distinction between primary (single) discursive genres and secondary (complex) ones. This is not a functional distinction. The secondary (complex) discursive genres—novels, drama, scientific research of all types, great journalistic genres, etc.—emerge in conditions of more complex and relatively developed, organized, cultural communication: essentially written communication, of an artistic, scientific, social, and political, etc. kind. In the process of their formation, they absorb and transform the various primary (simple) discursive genres that arose in conditions of unmediated verbal communication.


But what exactly is a genre? It is one of the fundamental notions of translinguistics, the discipline that studies the stable, nonindividual, forms of discourse.

Every particular utterance is assuredly individual, but each sphere of language use develops its own relatively stable types of utterances, and that is what we call discursive genres.


How to analyze the notion of genre? The first elements of an answer are to be found in the Medvedev/Bakhtin book. Genre originates in the dual orientation of every utterance, orientation toward its object and toward an interlocutor.

An artistic entity of any type, that is, of any genre, is related to reality according to a double modality; the specifics of this double orientation determine the type of this entity, that is its genre. The work is oriented, first, toward its listeners, and recipients, and toward certain conditions of performance and perception. Second, the work is oriented toward life, from the inside so to speak, by its thematic content. Every genre, in its own way, orients itself thematically toward life, toward its occurrences, its problems, etc.


There follows a rapid examination of the forms taken by this orientation in both cases. But, although the two cases are set, in principle, on the same plane, Medvedev/Bakhtin's attention is already concentrated more upon the relation between work and world, and it is with respect to this relation that he introduces the notion, essential here, of completion. By definition, the world is unlimited, endowed with innumerable properties; genre makes a selection among them, sets a model of the world, and breaks up the infinite series.

For the theory of genres, the problem of completion is among the most vital (10:175). The subdivision of particular arts into genres is determined in large measure by the types of completion of the entire work. Each genre is a particular manner of constructing and completing the whole, since it is essential, let us stress this, to achieve thematic completion, and not a conventional one at the level of composition only (10:176). Every genre that is an essential genre is a complex system of ways and means of apprehending reality in order to complete it while understanding it (10:181). A genre is the set of means for a collective orientation in reality, aiming for completion.


Genre, then, forms a modeling system that proposes a simulacrum of the world.

Every genre has its methods, its ways of seeing and understanding reality, and these methods are its exclusive characteristic (10:180). The artist must learn to see reality through the eyes of the genre.


When Bakhtin returns to the question of genre, ten years later, his conception has become more focused and restricted. There is no longer question, with respect to genres, of an orientation toward the interlocutor, but only of a relation between the text and the world—of the model of the world put forward by the text. This modeling is analyzed at the same time into its constitutive elements, which turn out to be two: space and time.

The field of representation changes from genre to genre and among the periods of literary evolution. It is organized differently and it delineates itself differently as space and time. This field is always specific.


To designate these two essential categories that always occur in conjunction with each other, Bakhtin coins the term of chronotope, that is, the set of distinctive features of time and space within each literary genre. Given the definition of genre, the two words, genre and chronotope, will become synonymous.

In literature, the chronotope has an essential generic signification. It can be stated categorically that genre and generic species are precisely determined by the chronotope.


It must immediately be added that Bakhtin does not use the notion of chronotrope in restricted fashion, and does not limit it simply to the organization of time and space, but extends it to the organization of the world (which can be legitimately named “chronotope” insofar as time and space are fundamental categories of every imaginable universe). All the same, in the very text in which Bakhtin works out this notion, there is a noticeable process of amplification, since he begins with pertinent remarks on the organization of space and time in the Greek novel, and ends with a description of Rabelais's “chronotope” in which the relation to the temporal and spatial dimension is not always obvious.

Rabelais' varied series can be reduced to the following basic groupings: (1) series of the human body in its anatomical and physiological dimensions; (2) human clothing series; (3) food series; (4) drink and drunkenness series; (5) sex series (copulation); (6) death series; (7) excrement series.


When, in his last texts, he evokes again the problem of genre, Bakhtin rapidly passes by the general definition (“genre is defined by the object, the goal, and the situation, of the utterance” [38:358]), and lingers on another point: the reality of genre in the life of a society. Bakhtin appears to have considered two aspects of the problem. On the one hand, generic rules have, within a society, a reality comparable to that of linguistic rules: both may be unconscious but they exist nonetheless.

We speak only through certain discursive genres, that is, all our utterances have some relatively stable and typical forms enabling them to achieve totality. … Linguistic forms and the typical forms of utterances, that is discursive genres, integrate our experience and our consciousness, according to strict relation of one with the other.


And just as linguistic rules can be violated, generic rules can be ignored, but not without some consequences.

Many people with a remarkable knowledge of the language feel totally powerless in some areas of communication, precisely because they do not know all the practical forms of the genres that have currency in those areas. Frequently a man who knows remarkably well the discourse of different cultural spheres, who knows how to give a lecture, lead scholarly debate, and who is to be commended for his interventions on public issues, is reduced to silence or intervenes in a most awkward fashion in a social conversation.


On the other hand, genre has a historical dimension: it is not only an intersection of social and formal properties but also a fragment of collective memory.

Genre lives in the present, but it always remembers the past, its beginnings. Genre is the representative of creative memory in the process of literary evolution, which is precisely why genre is capable of guaranteeing the unity and the continuity of this evolution (32:142). The same generic universe is manifest at the beginnings of its evolution in the Menippean satire, and at its peak, reached in Dostoevsky. But we already know that the beginnings, that is, the generic archaisms, are maintained in renewed form in the higher levels of the evolution of the genre. Moreover, the more elevated the genre, the more complex it has become and the more, and the better, it remembers its past.


It is indeed a case of collective and not individual memory, and its content may even remain unknown to the individual; but this content is inscribed in the formal properties of the genre.

Does this mean that Dostoevsky took Menippean satire as his starting point directly and consciously? Certainly not. … Somewhat paradoxically, it can be said that it is not Dostoevsky's subjective memory, but the objective memory of the very genre he used, that preserved the particularities of Menippean satire (32:162). Cultural and literary traditions (including the most ancient ones) are preserved and continue to live, not in the subjective memory of the individual, nor in some collective “psyche,” but in the objective forms of culture itself (including linguistic and discursive forms); in this sense, they are intersubjective and interindividual, and therefore social; that is their mode of intervention in literary works—the individual memory of creative individuals almost does not come into play.



Going from these general considerations to the genre on which Bakhtin focused his attention throughout his life, namely the novel, one cannot help but feel a certain malaise. We have already come across the novel in the course of the presentation of various of Bakhtin's theses: it is the highest incarnation of intertextual play, and it gives heterology the greatest room for action. But heterology and intertextuality are nontemporal categories that can be applied to any period of history; how is their omnipresence to be reconciled with the necessarily historical nature of the genre? Our malaise is likely to increase when we notice that Bakhtin's favorite examples—those that keep recurring in his writings and allow him to identify the genre specifically—are not works to which the genre of the novel is ordinarily associated (such would be works of Fielding, Balzac, or Tolstoy, authors barely mentioned), but those of Xenophon and Menippus, Petronius and Apuleius. If the novel is reduced to intertextuality and heterology, these works are certainly representative; but then, speaking of the novel in Antiquity, one can do no more than note, in that period too, the presence of intertextual play and heterological plurality. What is gained by this new designation? It seems that the concept of the novel is so essential to Bakhtin that it escapes his own rationality, and that the use of the term is due to an attachment of a primarily affective nature, that does not bother about the reasons of its fixation. So that a question is forced upon us: is the novel, in the Bakhtinian sense of the term, really a genre? We have seen, besides, that a genre is to be defined by its chronotope; yet, in Bakhtin, there is never question of a single novelistic chronotope.

This presumption of a singular status for the notion of novel increases when one notes that all of the characteristics of the novel are taken by Bakhtin, without notable alteration, from the great Romantic aesthetic, the reflections of Goethe, Friedrich Schlegel, and Hegel, as if a failure to achieve genuine integration of the notion into his own system authorized such a massive and uncritical borrowing. Let us look a little closer at Bakhtin's description of the novel, and its relation to his Romantic predecessors.

For Bakhtin, the novel is a genre like no other, because each of its instances is ultimately irreducibly individual (a contradiction, indeed, of the very notion of genre).

The essential point is that, unlike other genres, the novel has no canon: only particular examples play a role in history, but not the canon of the genre as such.


This assertion is a direct reference to Friedrich Schlegel:1

Every novel is a genre in itself.

(Kritische Ausgabe, XVIII, 2, 65)

Every novel is an individual entity for itself, and therein lies the essence of the novel.

(KA, III, p. 134)

Schlegel affirmed in addition, as does Bakhtin, that the novel results from the admixture of all the genres that existed before it.

The idea of a novel, as it is established by Boccaccio and Cervantes, is the idea of a romantic book, a romantic composition, where all the forms and all the genres are mixed and interwoven. In the novel, the principal mass is furnished by prose, more diverse than that of any genre set by the Ancients. There are historical parts, rhetorical parts, parts in dialogue; all these styles alternate, they are interwoven and related in the most ingenious and the most artificial way. Poems in all genres, lyrical, epic, didactic, as well as romances, are scattered throughout the whole and embellish it in a varied and exuberant profusion and diversity in the richest and most brilliant fashion. The novel is a poem of poems, a whole texture of poems. It is obvious that a poetic composition of this kind, produced from such varied elements and forms where external conditions are not strictly limited, allows a much more artificial poetic interweaving than the epic of drama, insofar as the first requires a unity of tone while the second must be easily summed up and apprehended, since it is to be offered to intuition.

(KA, XI, p. 159-160)

Or, more concisely: “The novel is a mixture of all poetic kinds, of natural poetry without artifice, and of the mixed genres of artistic poetry” (Literary Notebooks 1797-1801:55).

Socratic dialogues, Bakhtin will say, are the novels of Antiquity. Schlegel asserted similarly: “Novels are the Socratic dialogues of our day” (KA, II, Lyceum 26). According to Bakhtin, the novel is the youngest of the “great” genres (the category of “great” or “basic” genres will never be made explicit by him).

Among the great genres, only the novel is younger than writing and the book, and it is the only one organically adapted to the new forms of silent perception, that is reading. … The study of other genres is analogous to the study of dead languages; the study of the novel, to the study of modern languages, and young ones at that. … The novel is simply a genre among others. It is the only genre in a state of becoming among genres that have reached completion long ago and are already partly dead.


But the idea is already present in this manifesto of Romantic aesthetic that is the fragment 116 of the Athenaeum, whose author is again F. Schlegel.

Other poetic genres are now completed and can now be fully dissected. The poetic genre of the novel is still in becoming.

(KA, II, Athanaeum 116)

And it is known that for Schlegel (“Gespräch über die Poesie”) “a novel is a romantic book.”

Last born, the youngest of all, the novel is naturally the genre that does best today, and it dominates modern literature to the point that it is confused with modern literature. Bakhtin writes: “In some measure, it is with it and in it that is born the future of all literature” (27:481). And Schlegel: “All modern poetry draws its original coloration from the novel” (KA, II, Athenaeum 146).

In spite of the assertion that the novel is not really a genre, Bakhtin attempts to make more precise the opposition between the novel and the other “great” genres; and, at this point, he inevitably comes across the problematic triad of the lyric, the epic, and the dramatic.

We have already seen the difficulties encountered by Bakhtin, in his own perspective, in redefining the opposition novel-poetry (“poetry” in this context being the functional equivalent of “lyric”). If we take into account the distinction between two stylistic lines in the history of Western literature (in absentia and in praesentia dialogism), this opposition becomes even more fragile: isn't all of lyric poetry related to the first stylistic line, the one that maintains the homogeneity of the text while entering into dialogue with external heterology?

Bakhtin devotes the most attention to the distinction between epic and novel, in a text by that very name. To tell the truth, already the introduction to this debate is worrisome; for, as soon as he announces his project, Bakhtin refuses to grant the epic any specificity.

The three constitutive features of the epic that we have just described are equally proper, to a greater or lesser extent, to other high genres of classical Antiquity and of the Middle Ages.


But let us examine the definitions of the novel and the epic that are put forward. First, the novel:

I try to reach the basic structural features of this genre, the most plastic of all—features that have determined the direction of its own changes as well as the direction of its influence and of its action on the rest of literature. I find three such basic characteristics that distinguish the novel radically from all other genres: (1) the stylistic three-dimensionality of the novel, tied to the polyglot consciousness that actualizes itself in it; (2) the radical transformation of the temporal coordinates of the literary image in the novel; (3) the new zone of construction of the literary image in the novel, namely, the zone of maximum contact with the present (contemporary reality) in its openendedness.


The first of these characteristics is already known to us: discourse here is not only representing but also represented, object of representation; it is the question of the novel's tendency to reproduce a plurality of languages, discourses, and voices. This characteristic made an appearance in the opposition between the novel and (lyric) poetry, and it will not be commented upon here, in the confrontation with the epic. It is the two other characteristics (“already thematic moments of the structure of the genre of the novel,” 27:456) at work in the opposition of the novel and the epic, that receive further definition from Bakhtin:

(1) a national epic past—in Goethe's and Schiller's terminology the “perfectly past”—serves as the epic's object; (2) national legend (and not personal experience and the free invention that flows from it) serves as the source for the epic; (3) an absolute epic distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality, that is from the time in which the singer (and author and his audience) lives.

It will be noted that “epic,” the term under definition, appears twice in the definition itself (“epic past,” “epic distance”); in sum, the category is an anthropological one before it becomes literary.

These features—two for the novel against three for the epic—that allow the setting up of an opposition between the novel and the epic, are not clearly distinguished among themselves later on, and, in fact, can be reduced to a single great opposition: possible or impossible continuity between the time of the (represented) utterance and the time of (representing) uttering. The other characteristics of the two universes, epic and novelistic, derive from there.

The formally constitutive feature of the epic as a genre is rather the transferral of a represented world in the past and the appurtenance of this world to the past. … To portray an event on the same temporal and axiological plane as oneself and one's contemporaries (and, therefore, from personal experience and invention) is to accomplish a radical transformation, and to step out of the world of the epic into the world of the novel.


A whole slew of other characteristics of the novel (and of the epic) are brought in relation to this basic opposition. The representation of the author within the novel becomes possible; the novel requires a well-delineated beginning and end, whereas the epic can do without them; the novel valorizes the couple knowledge—lack of knowledge; the epic embodies unity, the novel diversity, etc. These remarks are of considerable interest, but we may well wonder whether they are all applicable to a genre, to a historically circumscribed entity, or rather whether they are not universally transgeneric and transhistorical categories. The reference to Goethe in one of the quoted passages may help us answer this question. In the text entitled “Über epische und dramatische Dichtung,” written in 1797 and published in 1827, cosigned by Schiller and Goethe, but actually written by Goethe alone, the epic is indeed placed into an opposition, not to the novel, though, but to drama. “The epic poet relates the event as perfectly past, while the playwright represents it as perfectly present” (Jubiläumsausgabe, vol. 36, p. 149).

The opposition between epic and drama is clearly rooted here in the dichotomy of “relating” and “representing” (which in turn refers back to Plato's opposition of diegesis and mimesis). But those are two modalities of discourse: how can one ask of them that they take on the status of historical and generic characteristics? Looked at from another perspective, the same distinction underlies parallel developments in Hegel, who is also mentioned by Bakhtin in these pages.

For the content as well as the representation of what he [the epic poet] narrates is intended to appear as removed from himself as a subject and as a closed reality in itself. The poet is not permitted to enter into a completely subjective unity with this closed reality—either with respect to the objective self, or with respect to its presentation. The third mode of representation [the drama] finally binds the two earlier ones together in a new totality, in which we see before us an objective development as well as its origin from within individuals. Thus the objective represents itself as belonging to the subject; simultaneously, however, the subjective is represented on the one hand in its transition to a real expression, and on the other hand as the lot which passion brings about as the necessary result of its own action.2

It is not only drama that thus shares the properties of the “novel” as defined by Bakhtin; so does the epic. I shall invoke but one example from Bakhtin himself. First, here is how, in the study on the chronotope, he characterizes the epic: “The internal aspect fuses with the external; man is wholly outside” (23:367).

Yet, in the same pages, Rabelais' work is presented as the purest incarnation of the novelistic; here is Bakhtin's description:

It must be stressed that in Rabelais there is absolutely no aspect of interior individual life. In Rabelais, man is wholly outside. A certain limit in the exteriorization of man is reached here. … Action and dialogue give expression to all that is within man.


In a text from the same period, the novelistic and the epic are no longer in a relation of opposition, but one appears to be a species of the other. “The great epic form (the great epic), including the novel … (22:224). The novel (and the great epic in general) …” (22:227).

Some twenty years later, Bakhtin seems to have reversed himself. Now it is the epic that is a single aspect of the novelistic:

In somewhat simplified and schematic fashion, it could be said that the novelistic genre has three basic roots: epic, rhetorical, carnivalesque.


On the other hand, we never find (unless it is in the unpublished materials) the confrontation we await, between the novel and drama.

The not very coherent, and ultimately irrational, character of Bakhtin's description of the genre of the novel is a strong indication that this category does not occupy its own place in the system. The intersection of two categories, present intertextuality and temporal continuity, does not provide a definition of a sufficiently specific object so that it may be located historically. Such a definition, which will inevitably be general, will not attain the complexity of the reality it is meant to apprehend; a genre appears at a certain period, and at no other. “Representing” or “relating” does not define a genre, but categories of discourse in general. The same applies to what Bakhtin had proposed as the constitutive features of the “novel.”

What he described under this name is not a genre, but one or two properties of discourse, whose occurrence is not confined to a single historical moment.


Bakhtin's generic analysis may be baffling with respect to the novel, but it proves apposite to the study of novelistic subgenres. They receive his attention during the thirties especially, in a series of investigations that could be divided into two groups: those bearing on the representation of discourse, and those devoted to the representation of the world. These two series are apparently independent of each other, and, in the end, we have three lists of the main novelistic subgenres.

In “Discourse in the Novel,” the enumeration of the subgenres occurs in the context of the discussion on the two stylistic lines whose conflict characterizes the history of the European novel. We get the following classification: (1) the minor genres of Antiquity that lead to the Satyricon and to The Golden Ass; (2) Sophistic novels; (3) chivalric romances; (4) the Baroque novel; (5) the Pastoral novel; (6) Prüfungsroman; (7) Bildungsroman; (8) the (auto)biographical novel; (9) the Gothic novel; (10) the Sentimental novel; (11) minor medieval genres (fabliaux, etc.); (12) the picaresque novel; (13) the parodic novel; (14) the syncretic novel of the nineteenth century. This list does not claim to be exhaustive. As an aside to the discussion, Bakhtin evokes the properties of the (English) humanistic novel, which is missing from the enumeration.

The study of the chronotope is explicitly dedicated to the description of the various models that have dominated the history of the novel. Actually it stops at the Renaissance (with Rabelais), but it does put forth some indications about later subgenres. Here the list runs more or less as follows: (1) the Sophistic or Hellenistic novel; (2) the novel of adventures and everyday life (Satyricon, The Golden Ass); (3) the (auto)biographical novel, with further subdivisions: (a) Platonic types or rhetorical novel; (b) “energetic” biography in the style of Plutarch or “analytic” biography following Suetonius; etc.; (4) chivalric romance; (5) lesser genres of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; (6) the Rabelaisian novel; (7) the Idyllic novel and its progeny: (a) the regional novel; (b) Sternian and Goethian novel; (c) Rousseauist novel; (d) the family novel, the novel of generations. Some additional subgenres, such as the Prüfungsroman, the Bildungsroman or Erziehungsroman, are also mentioned but not discussed.

In the fragments of the book on the Bildungsroman which have reached us (fragments that evidence their author's maturity of thought, and thus make even more regrettable the loss of the final manuscript), there is a third, shorter and synthetic listing, based on another criterion: the mode of representation of the main character; nonetheless, categories encountered previously, can be recognized here:

A classification according to the principle of construction of the image of the main character: the travel novel; the novel of the hero's trials [Prüfungsroman]; the biographical (autobiographical) novel; the novel of learning [Bildungsroman].


I won't go into the details of the descriptions of the subgenres thus advanced; they fall within the historians' area of competence. I shall limit myself to two broad comments. The first concerns the obviously open, nonstructured, character of these lists, which evidence Bakhtin's attachment to an “analytic history” in preference to a “systematic” one. It is significant that the search for a system becomes weaker with the passage of time. “Discourse on the Novel” (1934-1935) may have proposed still a weak form of systematization, with its distribution of genre into two stylistic lines, but no trace of it is left in the study on the chronotope (1937-1938). The various chronotopes are not classed in any way; the same applies to the modes of construction of the image of the character.

The second comment has to do with the total autonomy of these lists: there is indeed no cross-reference among them. This is not surprising, since the three lists are extremely close to each other, not only in outline, but in details. For example, whether the problematic under discussion be stylistic or structural, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival stands apart from the subgenre of the “chivalric romance,” to which it is, in principle, attached, and it comes closer to novels whose prototype is The Golden Ass (21:188 and 23:301). Or again: the advent of the second stylistic line (heterology in praesentia), as we saw, was correlated to the great geographic and astronomical discoveries; but the same is true of the predominance achieved, in the Renaissance, by a new chronotope (exemplified by the same works).

In his novel, Rabelais opens our eyes in a way to a universal and unlimited chronotope of human life. In this he was perfectly attuned to the nascent era of great cosmological and geographic discoveries.


At first, one could say that this remarkable coincidence is evidence of the validity of Bakhtin's work: having undertaken three completely independent investigations, he ends with the same result each time, each inquiry confirming the others. Actually matters are simpler, yet quite revealing of Bakhtin's conception. In fact, none of these inquiries ends up with a list of genres; the list was actually given beforehand. We have seen that Bakhtin does not deduce genres from an abstract principle, in the manner of Schelling or Hegel; he finds them. History has left in its wake a number of works that have regrouped, in history as well, according to a small number of models. That is an empirical given. And Bakhtin's work does not consist in the establishment of genres, but, having found them, in their submission to analysis (which can be stylistic as well as chronotopic, or related to the conception of man revealed in them). Bakhtin's practice thus confirms his attachment to “analytical history,” and beyond, to his conception of literary studies as a part of history.


  1. The references to Friedrich Schlegel are to the Kritische Ausgabe (abbreviated KA), followed by, first, the number of the volume and then that of the page or fragment; or to the Literary Notebooks 1797-1801 (LN) (London, 1957), followed by the number of the fragment.

  2. Esthétique, La poésie, French translation, vol. 1 (Paris: Aubier, 1965), pp. 128-29. Translation from the German by Linda Schulte-Sasse.

Chronological List of the Writings of Bakhtin and His Circle

1. M. Bakhtin, “Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost” [Art and responsibility]. In (42), pp. 5-6. Earlier publication in: Den' iskusstva (1919) and in Voprosy literatury 6 (1977).

2. V. N. Voloshinov, “Recenzija na knigu I. Glebova o Chajkovskom” [Review of a book by I. Glebov on Tchaïkovski]. Zapiski peredvizhnogo teatra 42 (1922). With other texts by Voloshinov, Moussorgsky and Beethoven, published in the review Iskusstvo. Vitebsk, 1921.

3. M. Bakhtin, “Avtor i geroj v esteticheskoj dejatel' nosti” [Author and character in aesthetic activity]. In (42), pp. 7-180. Earlier partial publication in: Voprosy filosofii 7 (1977) and in Voprosy literatury 12 (1978). Written about 1922 to 1924.

4. M. Bakhtin, “Problema soderzhanija, materiala i formy v slovesnom khudozhestvennom tvorchestve” [The problem of content, material, and form in the verbal artistic creation]. In (41), pp. 6-71. Earlier partial publication in Kontekst 1973. Moscow, 1974. Written in 1924.

5. M. Bakhtin, “Iz lekcij po istorii russkoj literatury. Vjacheslav Ivanov” [Extracts from lectures on the history of Russian Literature. Viacheslav Ivanov]. In (42), pp. 374-83. Transcription by R. M. Mirkina, from a course taught in the 1920s, probably around 1924.

6. V. N. Voloshinov, “Po tu storonu social'nogo” [On this side of the social]. Zvezda 5 (1925):186-214.

7. V. N. Voloshinov, “Slovo v zhizni i slovo v poezii.” Zvezda 6 (1926):244-67. Eng. trans. “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Poetry” to appear in Writings by the Circle of Bakhtin. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, forthcoming.

8. V. N. Voloshinov, Frejdizm. Moscow-Leningrad, 1927. Eng. trans. Freudianism: A Marxist Critique. Translated by I. R. Titunik. New York: Academic Press, 1976.

9. P. N. Medvedev, “Ocherednye zadachi istoriko-literaturnoj nauki” [The current tasks of a historical literary science]. Literatura i marksizm 3 (1928):65-87.

10. P. N. Medvedev. Fromal'nyj metod v literaturovedenii (Leningrad, 1928). Eng. trans. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. Translated by A. J. Wehrle. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

11. V. N. Voloshinov, “Novejshie techenija lingvisticheskoj mysli na Zapade” [The most recent currents of linguistic thought in the West]. Literatura i marksizm 5 (1928).

12. V. N. Voloshinov, Marksizm i filosofija jazyka. Leningrad, 1929. Eng. trans. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Translated by L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik. New York: Seminar Press, 1973.

13. M. Bakhtin, Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo. Leningrad, 1929. Eng. trans. Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics. Translated by W. W. Rotsel. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973. A new English translation, including new materials, is available in the Theory and History of Literature Series: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson with an introduction by Wayne C. Booth. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1984.

14. M. Bakhtin, “Predislovie” (Preface). In L. N. Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie khudozhestvennykh proizvedenij, vol. 11, “Dramaticheskie proizvedenija” [Dramatic works], pp. 3-10. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.

15. M. Bakhtin, “Predislovie [Preface]. In Tolstoj, Polnoe sobranie khudozhestvennykh proizvedenij, vol. 13, “Voskresenie” [Resurrection], pp. 3-20. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929. Eng. trans. in Writings by the Circle of Bakhtin. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, forthcoming.

16. V. N. Voloshinov, “O granicakh poétiki i lingvistiki,” in V bor'be za marksizm v literaturnoj nauke, pp. 203-40. Leningrad, 1930. Eng. trans. “On the Borders between Poetics and Linguistics,” in Writings by the Circle of Bakhtin. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Univ. of Minn. Press, forthcoming.

17. V. N. Voloshinov, “Stilistika khudozhestvennoj rechi. 1. Chto takoe jazyk?” [Stylistics of artistic discourse: 1. What is language?]. Literaturnaja uchëba 2 (1930):48-66.

18. V. N. Voloshinov “Stilistika khudozhestvennoj rechi. 2. Konstrukcija vyskazyvanija.” Eng. trans. “Stylistics of artistic discourse: 2. The Construction of Utterances,” in Writings of the Circle of Bakhtin. Translated by Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, forthcoming.

19. V. N. Voloshinov, “Stilistika khudozhestvennoj rechi. 3. Slovo i ego social'naja funkcija” [Stylistics of artistic discourse. 3. Discourse and its social function]. Literaturnaja uchëba 5 (1930):43-59.

20. P. N. Medvedev, Formalizm i formalisty [Formalism and the Formalists]. Leningrad, 1934.

21. M. Bakhtin, “Slovo v romane.” In (41), pp. 72-233. Earlier partial publication in: Voprosy literatury 6 (1972). Written in 1934-1935. Eng. trans. “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 259-422. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin, Texas: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981). Dialogic Imagination hereafter cited as DI.

22. M. Bakhtin, “Roman vospitanija i ego znachenie v istorii realizma” [The novel of apprenticeship and its significance in the history of realism], pp. 188-236. Written in 1936-38.

23. M. Bakhtin, “Formy vremeni i khronotopa v romane.” In (41), pp. 234-407. Earlier partial publication in: Voprosy literatury 3 (1974). Written in 1937-1938, except for “Concluding Remarks,” Eng. trans. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” in DI, pp. 84-258.

24. M. Bakhtin, “Iz predystorii romannogo slova.” In (41), pp. 408-46. Earlier partial publication in: Voprosy literatury 8 (1965) and in Russkaja i zarubezhnaja literatura. Saransk, 1967. Written in 1940. Eng. trans. “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” in DI, pp. 41-83.

25. M. Bakhtin, Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul'tura Srednevekovija i Renessansa. Written in 1940 except for some additions. Eng. trans. Rabelais and his World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968.

26. M. Bakhtin, “Rable i Gogol” [Rabelais and Gogol]. In (41), pp. 484-95. Earlier publication in: Kontekst 1972. Moscow, 1973. Written in 1940, revised in 1970.

27. M. Bakhtin, “Epos i roman.” In (41), pp. 448-83. Earlier publication in: Voprosy literatury 1 (1970). Written in 1941. Eng. trans. “Epic and Novel,” in DI, pp. 3-40.

28. M. Bakhtin, “K filosofskim osnovam gumanitarnykh nauk” [Toward the philosophical bases of the human sciences]. In (42), p. 409-11. Earlier partial publication in: Kontekst 1974. Moscow, 1975. Written about 1941.

29. M. Bakhtin, “Problema rechevykj zhanrov” [The Problem of the discursive genres]. In (42), pp. 237-80. Earlier partial publication in: Literaturnaja uchëba 1 (1978). Written in 1952-1953.

30. M. Bakhtin, “Problema teksta v lingvistike, filologii i drugikh gumanitarnykh naukakh. Opyt filosofskogo analiza” [The problem of text in linguistics, philology, and the other human sciences: An essay of philosophical analysis]. In (42), p. 281-307. Earlier publication in: Voprosy literatury 10 (1976). Written in 1959-1961.

31. M. Bakhtin, “K pererabotke knigi o Dostoevskom.” In (42), pp. 308-27. Earlier publication in: Kontekst 1976. Moscow, 1977. Written in 1961. Eng. trans. “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book.” In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, appendix II. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1984).

32. M. Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo [Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics], 2nd ed. Rev. of (13). Moscow, 1963.

33. M. Bakhtin, “Pis'mo I. I. Kanaevu o Gëte” [Letter to I. I. Kanaev on Goethe]. In (42), p. 396. Written 11 October 1962.

34. M. Bakhtin, “Pis'mo I. I. Kanaevu o Gëte” (Letter to I. I. Kanaev on Goethe]. In (42), pp. 396-97. Written in January 1969.

35. M. Bakhtin, “Recenzija ma knigu L. E. Pinskogo Shekspir” [Review of Shakespeare by L. E. Pinski]. In (42), pp. 411-12. Written in 1970.

36. M. Bakhtin, “Otvet na vopros redakeii Novo go mira” [Response to the question of the editorial committee of Novyj mir]. In (42), pp. 328-35. Earlier publication in: Novyj mir 11 (1970).

37. M. Bakhtin, “O polifonichnosti romanov Dostoevskogo” [On polyphony in the novels of Dostoevsky]. Rossija/Russia 2 (1975):189-98. Earlier publication in Polish in: Wspólczesność 17-30 (October 1971). Interview from 1970 or 1971.

38. M. Bakhtin, “Iz zapisej 1970-71 godov” [Extracts from notes from the years 1970-71]. In (42), pp. 336-60.

39. M. Bakhtin, “Zakljuchitel'nye zamechanija” [Concluding remarks]. In (41), pp. 391-407. Conclusions to (23). Written in 1973.

40. M. Bakhtin, “K metodologii gumanitarnykh nauk” [Concerning methodology in the human sciences]. In (42), pp. 361-73. Earlier partial publication in: Kontekst 1974. Moscow, 1975. Written in 1974.

41. M. Bakhtin, Voprosy literatury i éstetiki. Moscow, 1975. Eng. trans. of four of the essays in DI.

42. M. Bakhtin, Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva [The aesthetics of verbal creation]. Moscow, 1979. Published by S. G. Bocharov.

43. “M. M. Bakhtin i M. I. Kagan (po materialam semejnogo arkhiva)” [M. M. Bakhtin and M. I. Kagan, materials from family archives]. Pamjat' 4 (1981). Letters and documents edited by K. Nevel'skaja.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Ken Hirschkop (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Hirschkop, Ken. “Is Dialogism for Real?” Social Text 30 (1992): 102-13.

[In the following essay, Hirschkop examines the conflation of dialogue and dialogism in Bakhtin's work and in the academic discourse that has subsequently developed around it.]

Is dialogism for real? In one sense, absolutely. How could one doubt it when discussion of this concept and of its most well known theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, has given rise to such a torrent of articles, books, conferences and commentary? It's for real at least in the sense that, say, the 1986 Mets or rap turned out to be “for real,” its phenomenal success as a theoretical concept indicating it was an idea whose time had come. But even rap and the Mets, however dynastic their ambitions may have been, never claimed to have been there all along; the concept of dialogism, on the other hand, claims to identify a feature of language which was waiting to be discovered, something we hadn't noticed about the texts we worked with, but which, once acknowledged, would bring us at least as much pleasure as victory in the World Series or an evening with Bell Biv Devoe. When Bakhtin told us that those works we knew as “novels” were really dialogues in disguise, and that their stylistic techniques—irony, parody, free indirect discourse, and so forth—were really the indices of some fundamental dialogical quality of language, he provided not only analytical tools but cause for celebration. Dialogue—we always knew what that was, and for a long time we've known it was good—but to learn that it was a force active even in something as unspontaneous as a novel: this was a pleasant, and only initially surprising discovery, now well on its way to becoming common sense.

Just why such a discovery would be welcomed is obvious enough. Dialogue is so powerful a value in a liberal democratic political culture, so evident a political virtue, that the invitation to find it in literary works may prove impossible to refuse. So, let me warn you in advance, my argument is bound to appear somewhat churlish and mean-spirited. Much of what currently passes for Bakhtinian analysis would have us believe that novels are for all intents and purposes dialogues, despite the rather obvious fact that a single person composes them. What I wish to do in this article is to remind myself, as well as my readers, of the difference between a dialogue and a novel, and thus of the difference between dialogue and what we call dialogism. We need to remind ourselves of this so that we are forced to consider what is at stake when Bakhtin attempts to apply the idea of dialogue to formally finished works, like novels, works which, whatever their linguistic complexity, are composed by historical individuals, often with the luxury of great care and conscious reflection and without the spontaneous dangers of actual linguistic exchange. As you will see, my argument will not be that this application represents a regrettable error on Bakhtin's part: I do not wish to act like a schoolmaster, certainly not in relation to someone obviously more clever than myself and to whose work many of us have devoted far too many of the best years of our lives. Instead I will try to show that the confusion or overlapping between dialogue and dialogism is what makes Bakhtin's work interesting and provocative. In what follows I will argue that we will do ourselves, and dialogue, a favor by keeping it separate from dialogism, and from finished texts. We will do ourselves a favor by, well, not kidding ourselves that one person can speak on behalf of two; we will do dialogue a favor by showing that what Bakhtin calls novels are necessary, precisely because they do things which we cannot rightfully expect of dialogue. In short, I hope that my discussion of dialogism will reveal the limits of dialogue, limits which need airing in liberal democratic regimes such as ours, which overload dialogue with expectations and responsibilities.

What sort of expectations? In American public political life, dialogue signifies the resolution of conflicts by verbal means, implying the acceptance of certain liberal political tenets: an understanding of the necessity to find compromise solutions between opposing positions, an acknowledgement of the importance of discussion and debate, recognition of the private nature of many social interests. To have or start a dialogue between individuals or between political or social actors (Washington and Baghdad, let us remind ourselves, are capable of having dialogues, unlikely and strange as this may seem) is to put oneself into a scene of compromise and negotiation, of ideological give-and-take, and to agree that language rather than physical violence is the preferable means of ending a dispute. This political charge is perhaps what distinguishes modern dialogue from its private cousins, the conversation and the chat. Of course, our conversations are often also dialogues, strictly speaking, but for significant reasons we don't choose to label them so, reserving that honor not for gossip with the grocer or repartee with the cabbie but for occasions of a more formal sort.

Yet the political value of dialogue doesn't depend on this formality alone; it is not merely a question of the arena in which a discourse takes place. So, for example, it turns out that many exchanges between social actors aren't really dialogues, although they resemble them at first glance. Both speakers come to the table, they talk, one utters, the other responds, there is give-and-take, yet in the end it doesn't quite work. It's this which distinguishes, in current parlance, the “meaningful dialogue” from the mere going-through-the-motions version. For true dialogue to take place one has to exchange not only statements or sentences but something else—ideas, positions—and one has to do so with a willingness to take on board those proffered by your interlocutor.

It's this more abstract consideration which opens the door for Bakhtin. For he will argue that such an exchange or interaction of positions is possible even in the absence of the formal written or verbal structure of dialogue, that the single work and even the single utterance may embody such an exchange by being, as he says, “double-voiced” or “double-directed.” By this Bakhtin means that a single utterance or statement may contain two, in principle, separable meanings: “two socio-linguistic consciousnesses,” as he puts it “come together and fight it out on the territory of the utterance.”1 Parody, the representation of oral speech, stylization, the critical representation of social dialects: all these literary phenomena may be thrown together by virtue of the fact that they seem to combine the intentions or semantic position typical of a speech form with a second accent, added, so to speak, by the author, who orchestrates the target language in line with his or her own aesthetic purposes.

It is in the first work published under Bakhtin's name (canny distinction that!), Problems of Dostoevsky's Art, published in 1929 and reworked into the now better known Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics in 1961-2, that Bakhtin first proposed to invest so much significance in novelistic style. In fact, he argues that Dostoevsky can create dialogue within the confines of the novel precisely to the extent that he can “make present” the heroes of his work:

… everything [in the novel] must touch the hero's raw nerve, it must provoke him, interrogate him, polemicize with and taunt him if necessary, everything must be addressed to the hero, must face him, it should be experienced as discourse about someone present2

Put like this, the case appears somewhat ridiculous: how can you call this a dialogue when the hero can't actually answer back? The answer lies in the distinctions drawn above: if dialogue isn't merely the formal alternation of speech acts, and is only truly realized when actually different interests or values face off against each other, then arguably one can take the next step and do without the formal alternation of positions, the actual two-sidedness of dialogue, altogether.

In fact, Bakhtin does not so much step as leap to this conclusion, literally bounding across the practical difficulties. For, as you may be aware, Bakhtin argues that dialogical interaction is built into the very structure of language itself, so that any statement actually involves debate with alternative value positions. Thus: “Every concrete discourse or utterance finds the object at which it is directed always, so to speak, already spoken about, argued over, evaluated, enveloped by the obscuring fog or, if you like, the light of other, already spoken, discourses about it.”3 Since reading these words of Bakhtin's, many a literary critic has slept easier in his or her bed, happy in the knowledge that even most isolated statement encounters, or “makes present” if you like, partners in dialogue, who are somehow buried in the language itself. What I want to draw your attention to, however, is Bakhtin's need to describe dialogism in the language of encounter, for it indicates some recognition of the fact that the good stuff one gets from dialogue, the political and social payoff, depends upon the “presence” of multiple speakers. Hence that rather bizarre sense that by opening your mouth or lifting your pen (two, I realise, antiquated forms of expression) you are magically transported to something resembling the House of Commons or a family squabble. “A living utterance” Bakhtin claims, “cannot avoid becoming an active participant in social dialogue”4: one cannot speak without getting into an argument.

That Bakhtin should be compelled to describe dialogism in terms of encounter and making present the other is no accident, for the virtues of dialogism are too closely bound up with the actual situation of dialogue to admit any distinction. The great things achieved by the novel depend on its ability to summon up “other persons,” as the following makes clear:

To the fully embodied consciousness of the hero, the author can only juxtapose one kind of objective world: a world of other consciousnesses having equal rights.5

One finds here the not so surreptitious introduction of a central political concept, that of equal rights, into a description of linguistic style. It is a concept essential to Bakhtin's idea of dialogism, and yet it is not really a linguistic concept at all. Equal rights are characteristic of liberal political orders, they exist by virtue of formal constitutions and legal institutions to protect them, and while their existence has a central bearing on language, one can't distinguish as a matter of style voices with rights from voices without them. Dostoevsky's dialogism is presented as discourse which simply reveals possibilities latent within language itself, but further scrutiny reveals an unstated reliance on the project of Western liberalism.

It could not, I would like to argue, be otherwise. Bakhtin needs to borrow such concepts, for he is asking language to bear some additional weight, to carry ethico-political baggage which it can't generate from its own resources. Analyse language as much as you please: you cannot really derive the social and political values bound up in the idea of dialogism. Pace Bakhtin and others as well (like Habermas), the structure of speech itself seems to me too neutral to be made the basis of a moral or political philosophy. It's not that I'm against communication; it's just that speech seems too various in its uses and forms, too willing an accomplice of every sort of social relation, friendly or exploitative, empowering or oppressive, to provide by itself standards for our social life. There is no such thing as speech by itself, in a void, without people, bodies, social relations and a natural world, and it is only from speech in collusion with all of that that we may extract some well-founded guidance for politics and social value.

Bakhtin, however, would appear to think he can do without a more inclusive account of the human and social world. He, of course, is practically legend for his insistence on the situatedness, the context-boundness of language, but he rarely if ever discusses the structure of that world or that context; he consistently attempts to derive his criteria for dialogue from language itself. It's this feature of his argument which lends dialogism its flexibility: dialogism is not language given such and such a social world, it's language per se, and so dialogism of the novelistic sort justifies itself as language which does what language gotta do.

Close inspection reveals, however, that to endow language with some kind of inner political impetus Bakhtin is forced to smuggle into it social and political attributes which really don't belong there, or which can't be assumed to follow from the mere act of speech. The characterization of language as a scene of encounters, as in essence “social dialogue,” effectively introduces social and political values of two kinds. In the first place, by endowing linguistic units with the attribute of personhood, it renders them eligible for the protections afforded by Kantian ethics. Consider just what Dostoevsky's dialogism consists of—a refusal to reduce heroes to instruments of an authorial plan, the granting to personal discourse of a certain measure of autonomy, the treatment of language as deserving of respect merely because it is the language of other human beings—and you realise that its principal features come, not from a theory of language or discourse, but from Kantian ethics, a link made explicit when Bakhtin at the end of his days described discourse itself as the “kingdom of ends.”6 In the second place, the making present of others by means of linguistic derring-do allows Dostoevsky, according to Bakhtin, to create a kind of miniature Gemeinschaft within the space of the novel, a Buberian religious community in which the presence of others in the guise of the purely human makes possible a radically new form of personal relation. I have no particular argument with either of these projects, but they represent precisely that: projects with an interesting and chequered political history, not realisations of ontological attributes of language.

The celebrated essay “Discourse in the Novel” is another exercise in community-making, only in this case the act of discourse plunges you not into a religious Gemeinschaft but into the rather more heterogeneous world of the public square. The “novel,” whatever Bakhtin means by that (which isn't entirely clear), summons up not persons but entire social groups:

The necessary prerequisite of the novel as a genre is the internal stratification of a national language into social dialects, group habits, professional jargons, generic languages, the languages of generations and age-groups, the languages of authorities, of movements, of circles and passing fashions, the languages of socio-political days and even hours. … The novel orchestrates all its themes by means of this social heteroglossia …7

What appeared to be a novel is in fact something between a bazaar and a political meeting, and it can be so because the novelist is able to double-voice his or her language, to make it serve both the aesthetic intentions of the novel itself and those embedded in the social speechtypes or languages of society. Surely at this point one is entitled to believe that dialogism recreates a kind of linguistic interchange, that it embodies language as “social life”—interaction, linguistic exchange, verbal to and fro—in opposition to the isolation of the individual. After all, the very opening of the essay reminds us of the novels' contact with “the social life of discourse, outside the artist's study, in the open spaces of public squares and streets,” in contrast to the “the cloistered artist” offered as an embodiment of the traditional poet.8 And surely it is no less true that the novelistic genres, in this text lauded as dialogism in its purest form, are therefore literary embodiments of dialogue, for they offer to summon up not actual persons, but points of view. Indeed, as we are all aware, something close to an entire critical industry has grown up around this basic premise: that the novelistic form, as defined by Bakhtin, incarnates that openness to exchange, that interest in diversity of points of view, which we consider intrinsic to dialogue in its social and political sense.

And yet … again one runs into the fundamental problem, that in fact novels, even when we include as disparate a range of works as Bakhtin would have us do, are not spontaneous acts of conversation or political meetings, and that, the author, for better or worse, must represent the language of these various social, historical and temporal groups. Whatever the values made flesh in the novel, the openness and spontaneity we deem essential to dialogue aren't found there. It is as if George Bush and Dick Cheney proposed a dialogue with, say, their Iraqi antagonists, in which the latter did not actually show up, but were, by dint of the speech act of George Bush and company, represented linguistically. We would rightly regard such a dialogue as a sham, and we could do so even if we had absolute faith in the literary abilities and moral sincerity of our own national leaders. To the extent that dialogue is seen as a legitimating social and political good, it requires the participation of actually different individuals or what we would call “accredited representatives” of the relevant social groups. Dialogism can't claim this legitimacy for its own speech acts, for there is no real dialogue there, but an interesting kind of complexity, itself the consequence of the novelist's peculiar task in the relation to the language which surrounds him or her.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning, my aim is not to wag a theoretical finger at those who believe reading Dickens is like taking the floor of the House of Commons. On the contrary, the point I am most concerned to make is that the difference of dialogism from dialogue is what renders the former relevant to our social and political life, that in fact “dialogism” as a distinctive kind of discourse calls attention to fundamental features of our social and political life too often obscured by our obsession with dialogue. In brief, my claim will be that dialogism describes the work of those “secondary genres” whose job it is to cite and represent the languages generated in so-called primary genres (everyday speech, etc.), and that this citation and representation is an ineluctable feature of the socio-political life of the modern nation-state. In the case of such genres, dialogue is neither possible nor appropriate, and it provides no standard or critical ideal.

A careful examination of the text of “Discourse in the Novel” reveals two quite different socio-political justifications for dialogism: it is valued not only for reproducing the spontaneity of dialogue, but also as a literary form which puts us in touch with a vital, popular, “public square” world of struggling historical discourses. The novel, Bakhtin argues, infuses its language with an “intentional feeling for the historical and social concreteness and relativity of living discourse, for its participation in historical becoming and social struggle,”9 bringing us closer to the ground of some putatively real, popular, actually living discourse.

So while the rhetoric of dialogue continues from Bakhtin's Dostoevsky book, “Discourse in the Novel” in fact inaugurates a sharp populist turn away from Kantian ethics and its interest in autonomous self-regulating individuals. It's not that the conversation of the public square, now idolized, isn't composed of dialogues, it's just that it is valued not for the equal rights embodied within it, but for its quasi-Nietzschean “liveliness,” its earthiness and vulgarity, its imbrication with interests and struggles. That one can continue to call this dialogism isn't, on reflection, that surprising, for in both the earlier and later works what's at stake isn't dialogue itself, which is in any case out of the question, but some broader social project.

In the case of the essay on the novel, the field of extra-linguistic value which provides the novel with a purpose is a vision of the life of “the people.” Of course, like every kind of populism, Bakhtin's entails the projection onto popular life of values which are the product of intellectual meditation on the life of “the people.” So while the dialogism of the novel endows discourse with a vigour and liveliness associated with the popular, this liveliness itself is only made visible by the novelist himself or herself. It depends on the novelist being able to see, beneath the surface details of popular social life, the fundamental drama of heteroglossia played out within it:

Behind every utterance in a genuine novel one senses the elemental force of social languages with their inner logic and inner necessity. The image reveals not just the actuality, but also the possibilities of a given language, its, so to speak, ideal limits, and its total integral meaning.10

By making “formal markers of languages, manners and styles into symbols for social points of view”11, the novelist infuses the mundane stylistic marker with the force of popular life, and it is precisely this process, referred to throughout this essay as the making of “images of languages,” which defines the distinctive phenomenon called dialogism. The key to novelistic dialogism, then, is not an immersion in the authentic plebeian sociability of the public square, but the novelist's ability to endow so-called popular or everyday language with an historical or social significance it lacks in its everyday context. Such a transformation or refraction of everyday language is not really a dialogue at all: it lacks the most elementary features of actual political dialogue, and could not possibly claim legitimacy on that basis. It should be described in quite different terms: as representation or, if you like, “citation” and “reaccentuation,” the aesthetic processing of the language of others for specific ends. What the novelist does to so-called everyday language or heteroglossia is distinctive and important on its own terms. In actual dialogues we don't necessarily ponder the historical significance of word choice, pronunciation, or syntax: but in the novel, as theorised by Bakhtin, the most intimate and throwaway stylistic feature becomes the index of a grand historical drama, the simple conversation an arena for sociological conflict.

If nevertheless novelistic dialogism appears to be confused with some other kind of dialogue, this is an almost inevitable consequence of populism itself. For “the people,” as a rhetorical category, has the advantage of designating both a separate group within society, opposed to the official or to the lordly or both, and a form of society in its own right, a form which can be valued as somehow more real or authentic than the pretentious world of self-regarding individuals which opposes it. It's possible to contrast the popular ersatz peasant community with the intellectual one, arguing that the former is more social, more dialogical if you like. Such a vision, however, represses the fact that the novel has its own formal properties: it doesn't only take the languages of the public square into itself, but changes the way we see them, endowing them with a depth of social meaning they lack in everyday intercourse. In doing so, it doesn't so much violate the norms of dialogue as call to our attention the fact that dialogue cannot achieve everything, that the difference between a novel and the public square is not only inevitable, but productive, valuable, essential to our social life. For the novel does things to heteroglossia that heteroglossia can't do to itself, providing a kind of insight into language which is not immediately available.

This isn't a terribly populist, let alone popular, view, and, not surprisingly, Bakhtin's own discussions of the novelistic and the dialogical are criss-crossed by resistances to it. So, for example, one could read “Discourse in the Novel” as conflating the irony of the plebeian folk, their rustic native scepticism, with that more properly historical sense of language available in the nineteenth century novel. Both of these are called dialogical, as if the public square was populated with peasant Balzacs and merchant Dostoevskys. In the same vein, Bakhtin's own history of the novel can never quite decide whether its mode is cyclical, depicting a high poetic literary language periodically engulfed by popular heteroglossia, or developmental, as in the chronotope essays, where the novel gradually perfects its narrative technique, the better to depict so-called real history and social struggle. One cannot help thinking that behind these ambiguities lies a “populist” unwillingness to admit that dialogism may itself be the fruit of a long developmental process, that it might be linked to the specific historical conditions of modernity and might require its peculiar resources—a concept of historical record-keeping, high rates of literacy, a varied and cosmopolitan urban social life, historical consciousness, democratic and secular beliefs, and so on—none of which would be available to the peasant, however refined his or her irony in the public square.

The novel itself therefore, as a peculiarly modern genre, has work to do, yet Bakhtin, in keeping with populism, will only justify it with reference to the values of “the people.” He thus avoids confronting all the different respects in which the novel and popular speech are uneven, incapable of entering into a real dialogue: the unevenness, for example, between print technology and oral speech, the unevenness which results from differences in literacy and from the time and resources necessary for reflection on language, the unevenness that corresponds to social position and range of audience. In each of these respects the novel as speech, as that which accents or orchestrates heteroglossia, is constitutively different from that heteroglossia itself. And this unevenness, I will shortly argue, is not peculiar to this situation, but is a constitutive historical feature of our linguistic life.

If it turns out, then, that novelistic or dialogical writing can't embody the values of dialogue, is this a problem? Is dialogism just a sham rendering of dialogue, a case of novelists and intellectuals trying to cash in on the accepted values of dialogue or the notional vitality of plebeian sociability? Why doesn't Bakhtin revel in the distinctiveness of novelistic writing, in its difference from the everyday conversations of the people? The answer is that from his populist perspective, the constitutive, ineluctable unevenness of novelistic dialogism must appear as a limit on the possibilities discourse, as the point at which the brute facts of modern life make real dialogue unworkable, for better or worse. This would be bad news indeed, for it would mean that to have novels—forms of discourse which cite and represent—we have to give up on the ideal of a free and democratized language. The price of modernity, as represented by that peculiarly modern genre, the novel, would be loss of pure dialogue and plebeian sociability. And the absence of pure dialogue, so the argument would go, leads inevitably to authoritarianism, monologism, oppression, inequality.

Unless, of course, there is something wrong with the assumption that dialogue represents all we should hope for in the political and social life of language. That, needless to say, is my point. Or, more precisely, it is Bakhtin's point, even though he does not seem to know it. In describing the relation of the novel to “everyday language” as a dialogue, Bakhtin intended to extend the realm of dialogue. In fact, by pointing out to us all that novels can do, even though they aren't dialogues, he revealed us the limitations of the idea of dialogue. And a good thing too: for in the modern age, the age of print, of mass media and culture, of ostensibly democratic principles, dialogue would seem an impoverished ideal. It misses out too much about our speech life, it proposes models and aspirations unrealisable in all but a few situations. It would be a pity if all we could say in response was: too bad for modern life. Better to admit that there might be something to those genres which cite and represent, something they have that the public square lacks. Perhaps dialogism, to coin a phrase, reaches those parts dialogue cannot reach.

For dialogue, after all, does depend upon a rather peculiar model of language. It envisages language as an endless series of one-on-one encounters, encounters between speaking subjects who could in theory be evenly matched. The believer in dialogue naturally divides the stream of language into millions of roughly equivalent linguistic exchanges, each modeled on that famous Saussurean diagramme in which two heads pass between them the lonely linguistic sign. It is the combination of this model of language with the political ideals of individual autonomy and respect for others which gives the claims of dialogue such force. If language were at bottom composed of such exchanges, then our social and political ideals would surely demand that they all aspire to the exalted state of dialogue.

From the perspective of 1991, however, such a description of language appears a bit out-of-date. In fact, it is more of a fantasy than a description, for language, I would like to argue, has never corresponded to this model. Its fatal defect is that it takes no account of what I will call hereafter the uneven structuring of language, that is, the fact that the discursive world consists, not only of speaking individuals, but of a series of interacting structures or forms of discourse, which vary according to the durability of the utterance, the size and nature of speaker and audience, the degree of literacy required for participation, as well as the social factors highlighted in Bakhtin's own work. To use the face-to-face conversation as a model for the TV broadcast, the government directive, the religious service or cultic ceremony, the written record or the literary text is wrong-headed and restrictive, for all these forms must appear deficient to the extent that they make impossible the pure relations of dialogue. Not only do such discursive structures often entail some kind of internal unevenness, such as a clear and irreversible distinction between speaker and listener, the relations between them are likewise uneven. Writing, then print, then the electronic media of the twentieth century have endowed certain speech acts with a force unavailable to others; conversely face-to-face conversations often have a flexibility unavailable to the more durable utterance. As I will briefly indicate below, the unevenness runs along many different axes, such that no one form of speech holds the trump card. Neither does this unevenness necessarily run parallel to divisions of a social and political kind. The critical point is that the linguistic world always has and always will consist of such a hodge-podge of structures, and that between those structures relations of citation and representation well as dialogue obtain. To describe language as a vast ocean of utterances, all more or less alike, entails homogenizing a much more complicated process.

Bakhtin, the champion of heteroglossia, is, alas, one of the villains in this drama. For while he acknowledges the diversity of language he irons out the kinds of unevenness I am talking about when he argues that “there is a common plane which … justifies our juxtaposition of these languages: all the languages of heteroglossia, no matter what principle lies at the base of their particularization, appear as specific points of view on the world.”12 The difference between a newspaper and a shout in the street, however, cannot be described as a difference of point of view, and it would be silly to expect or desire that difference to be ironed out in a dialogue.

Neither, however, should we imagine that, having accepted the pervasiveness of citation and representation in the linguistic world, we can then expect this new, enlarged model of language to deliver some updated social and political ideal, capable of replacing dialogue in our politicosentimental life. As I said at the beginning, I would doubt that we can draw social or political standards from an account of language alone, however nuanced. Bakhtin himself only gave the idea of a dialogical novel political flesh by combining it with his own quasi-Nietszchean populism. But the starting point for our reflections, wherever they may lead, should be a vision of language as unevenly structured, full of forms which don't respond, as in a dialogue, but cite and represent. Any modern politics of language has to acknowledge that Gesellschaft is the order of the day, even in speech.

Of course, even to mention that ugly word is to set people on edge, to seem to prescribe an endless diet of linguistic alienation and homelessness. Needless to say, the aim of this paper is not to reassure people, to say: actually this modernity and all its citation is quite a good thing. The point is that it appears as a bad thing when people indulge in a kind of sociological romanticism about language, and that Bakhtin certainly does his part to encourage such romanticism. But at the same time his effusions about the novel, the people and the public square develop in his readers an enthusiasm for modernity which they may not want to own up to. When we become excited or inspired by his model of the novel, we recognise the possibilities or virtues not only of irony and sarcasm, in principle accessible to all, but of extensive historical knowledge, narrative sophistication, range of linguistic reference. These aren't modern features, but they're not something people are born with, either. If dialogism seems to require a certain level of literacy, cosmopolitanism and access to informational resources, then by rights we should look with pleasure, or at least hope, upon these products of modernity, even if they are bound up with the loss of linguistic Gemeinschaft.

If, then, dialogism isn't quite what we thought it was, if it isn't dialogue writ large, we should not despair. We ought to acknowledge the ineluctability of citation and representation in the social life of discourse. If we do not, we condemn ourselves, not to the past, which is, after all, irretrievable, but to a somewhat hypocritical populism, in which we forever pretend that the fruits of novelistic practice are available to all in their everyday dialogues. When we abuse dialogue, when we expect too much of it, we neglect those other forms of language and social exchange which tell us about virtues and possibilities besides those of dialogue, and tell us about the responsibilities of intellectual work, alas, not always reducible to the maintenance of dialogue. Dialogism is, I suppose, for real; for us, it seems, it is too real, for our fantasies of dialogue too often render it invisible.


  1. Voprosy literatury i estetiki (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1975), p. 172. All citations from this collection of essays are taken from the essay “Slovo v romane” [“Discourse in the Novel”].

  2. Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (Leningrad: Priboi, 1929), p. 70.

  3. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, pp. 89-90.

  4. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 90.

  5. Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo, p. 57.

  6. Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1979), p. 357.

  7. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 76.

  8. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 73.

  9. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 144.

  10. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 168.

  11. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 169.

  12. Voprosy literatury i estetiki, p. 105.

My thanks to Bruce Robbins for his generous and thoughtful help with this paper.

Principal Works

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Freidizm: Kriticheskii ocherk [as V. N. Voloshinov; Freudianism: A Critical Sketch] (criticism) 1927

Formal'nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sociologicheskuju poètiku [as P. N. Medvedev; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics] (criticism) 1928

Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka: Osnovnye problemy sociologicheskogo metoda v nauke o jazyke [as V. N. Voloshinov; Marxism and the Philosophy of Language] (criticism) 1929

*Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (criticism) 1929

O granitsakh poètiki i lingvistiki [as Voloshinov] (essay) 1930

Soiuz rabochikh i krestian v gody vosstanovleniia narodnogo khoziaistva (essay) 1961

*Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo [Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics] (criticism) 1963

Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa [Rabelais and His World] (criticism) 1965

Voprosy literatury i estetiki [partially translated as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays] (criticism) 1972

Problemy poetiki i istorii literatury (criticism) 1973

Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva [partially translated as Speech Genres and Other Late Essays] (prose) 1979

Bakhtin School Papers [edited by Ann Shukman] (essays) 1984

“K filosofii postupka” [Toward a Philosophy of the Act] (essays) 1986

Literaturno-kriticheskie stat'i (prose) 1986

Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin [translated by Vadim Liapunov, edited by Holquist and Liapunov] (essays) 1990

Bakhtiniskii sbornik. 3 vols. [edited by K. G. Isupov and others] (essays) 1990-91

The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev and Voloshinov [edited by Pam Morris] (essays) 1994

Raboty 1920-kh godov, Dlia nauchnykh bibliotek (essays) 1994

Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh (essays) 1996

Sobranie sochinenii T. 5. Raboty 1940-kh nachala 1960-kh godov [edited by S. G. Bocharev and L. A. Gogotishvili] (essays) 1996

*The title of the 1929 version of this work means “Problems of Dostoevsky's Art.” The 1963 version is a significant revision and expansion of the earlier work and is the version that has widely circulated in the West.

Gary Saul Morson (essay date autumn 1993)

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SOURCE: Morson, Gary Saul. “Strange Synchronies and Surplus Possibilities: Bakhtin on Time.” Slavic Review 52, no. 3 (autumn, 1993): 477-493.

[In the following essay, Morson discusses Bakhtin's fascination with indeterminism and his concept of “open time” in narrative.]

We live forward, but we understand backward.


Bakhtin must surely be regarded as the most remarkable modern thinker to examine time in narrative.1 For him, the problem was no mere exercise in literary theory. Rather, it was a way to examine ultimate questions—or in the Russian phrase, “accursed” questions—about human existence. In this respect, his work is representative of the Russian tradition, in which literature and criticism served as forms of—a skeptic would say, substitutes for—philosophy. In this Russian view, the task of philosophy is to examine the relation of ideas to the way people live.2 Novels are a supreme form of philosophy because, unlike the terribly thin accounts of life found in philosophical tracts, they offer a rich and “thick” description of human thinking and action. The great novelists philosophize not with a hammer but with a feather. As for criticism, its primary purpose is to clarify and elucidate—to “transcribe,” insofar as that is possible—the elusive wisdom of great literature; perhaps that wisdom might even be extended and enhanced. If we appreciate this tradition, we will understand why it is possible to read Bakhtin's book on Dostoevsky in either of two ways: it may either be taken as an examination of that writer, with digressions into broader issues concerning psychology, language and ethics; or it may be taken as a work primarily about those broader issues, illustrated “with constant reference to Dostoevsky.”

Like Dostoevsky, Bakhtin was centrally concerned to demonstrate the reality, and explore the nature, of open time. He was deeply committed to the view that for human life to be meaningful, events must be capable of going in many directions. For a determinist, there are only two types of events—actualities and impossibilities. What happened had to happen. To us it may sometimes appear that there were real possibilities that remained unrealized, but for the determinist that impression is the mere effect of our ignorance of basic laws and important facts. If we had complete knowledge, we would see why nothing else was possible.3

Strictly speaking, time is empty for the determinist, by which I mean that it is a mere parameter rather than an operator.4 It figures in equations but is not itself a force. Second, for the determinist time is symmetrical; the future is as unchangeable and as much a given as the past. Much as the equations of classical physics can be run either way to allow for either prediction or retrodiction, so for someone who could overcome the limitations of ignorance the future would be as knowable as the past.

Determinism here translates the insight of numerous theologians, for whom time affects nothing because God, who exists outside of time, can grasp the whole sequence of the universe in a glance. “Thus also the divine mind contemplates everything in one altogether simple act at once and without succession, that is, without the difference between the past, present and future; to Him all things are present,” wrote Giordano Bruno. Such a God contemplates history as we view a painting or think about a novel we have finished. Leibniz held that someone with sufficient insight “would see the future in the present as in a mirror.”5

Anyone who knows Dostoevsky's novels is aware that they are dedicated to showing that such a view is fatal to ethics, which depends on the reality of real choice and genuine alternatives. Human freedom is not just the elimination of compulsion—if that were all it were, it would be compatible with determinism—but also the ability to actualize one possibility rather than another. Bakhtin added that if time has only a single path then creativity is reduced to mere discovery—to “the extraction of square roots,” as Dostoevsky's man from underground says.

I think Bakhtin would have pretty much accepted William James's description of the essential difference between determinism and indeterminism. For both, the real issue concerns the nature of time. For the determinist, the universe is all of a piece, which means that the future can be one and only one thing. Determinism professes

that those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no unambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb; the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality. Any other future complement than the one fixed from eternity is impossible. The whole is in each and every part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron block, in which there can be no equivocation or shadow of turning.6

By contrast, the indeterminist sees a world in which the fit between parts and whole is not so perfect. There is “loose play” among the parts, so that “the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be” (“DD” [James, William “The Dilemma of Determinism”], 150). As a result—and this is the crucial point—“possibilities may be in excess of actualities … actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen; and somewhere, indeterminism says, such possibilities exist and form part of the truth” (“DD,” 150-51). Even if not “actual,” such possibilities are real.

James went on to argue that ultimately there is no way of proving either vision. Determinists must face the fact that just because something happens does not demonstrate something else could not have; and indeterminists obviously cannot show any example of an unactualized possibility that did happen because then it would not be an unactualized possibility. What makes us determinists or indeterminists is a matter of faith, in James's view. He therefore defended his belief in indeterminism by deepening our sense of what determinism entails: a loss of the sentiment of regret, an inability to wish the world were otherwise and a tendency to view the world as if moral judgment could be easily replaced by mere gnostic contemplation of what had to happen.

Such a purely negative defense of indeterminism was evidently insufficient for Bakhtin. He seems to have believed that, for intellectuals at least, the greatest obstacle to an acceptance, or even serious consideration, of open time was the intuitive sense that no other vision of the world is conceivable or makes sense. For if an exception to lawfulness could happen, what holds the universe together? We would have not a universe but a nulliverse, intellectuals tend to feel. The prestige of science over the past few centuries has given us a very definite sense of what it is to think deterministically, to imagine laws behind apparent contingencies, chances and choices, but what would a non-deterministic universe even look like? We have no such pictures, so there really is no choice. Bakhtin came to the conclusion that in fact we do have such pictures, and they are to be found in many works of great literature, if only we could attend to them properly. That should be a task of criticism.

Many literary works give us a rich description of a world where contingency and choice play a part. They picture a world governed by a combination of broad regularities in the background but considerable contingency or freedom in the foreground.7 The very existence of works of this sort shows that an indeterministic world is at least conceivable: for what has been conceived is manifestly conceivable. Shown such pictures, people who have accepted determinism by default would then actually have to choose between visions. They would cease to view time as if it could be one and only one thing. Or to use Bakhtin's favorite analogy, just as Galileo showed that the earth was only one of many planets, so determinism would become only one of several kinds of temporality. Intellectuals would develop a “Galilean” temporal consciousness.

Thus narrative literature was to be an important philosophical weapon for Bakhtin. His thought on time and narrative went through three stages, and in the remainder of this essay I would like to point out the essential features of each. Bakhtin began with a familiar analogy that he took with new seriousness: the relation of a character to an author is similar to the relation of an individual to the world's design and of a person to God. That is, if one could show that a literary hero could somehow be free and unpredictable to its author, one could imagine that a similar relation obtains between each person and the laws of the world or the knowledge of God.

To explore this analogy is a key purpose of Bakhtin's earliest writings, especially his long essay, “Author and Hero in Esthetic Activity.” Here Bakhtin examined the relation of hero to author with broader philosophical and theological issues in mind. Unfortunately, the model he developed wound up explaining why a hero could not be free. In his own terms, therefore, this experiment turned out to be a failure.

I need only sketch the very broadest outlines of Bakhtin's early argument. He discovered that authors have what he was later to call “an essential surplus of knowledge” with respect to their heroes. They know what is going to happen later to each hero; and the reader also knows that the hero's fate is already determined because it has already been planned and written down. Thus, however much we may project ourselves into a hero's world and identify with his or her agonies of choice, we also know, when we consider the fact that we are reading a completed artifact, that the choice is an illusion and that any hope or regret we may experience is pointless because the hero's destiny is already fixed. One and only one thing can happen. This closedness of time is particularly apparent when we reread a work, but the mere knowledge that the work is already written and would not change when reread infects even a first reading with some qualities of rereading. For the author and reader, though not for the character, it really is possible to “contemplate everything in one altogether simple act at once and without succession, that is, without the difference between the past, present and future … [Upon re-reading,] all things are present.” Formalism and structuralism rely precisely on the presence of such design, and one reason Bakhtin distrusted these movements is that they abolish real temporality.

The point is that the world looks different from inside and from outside; from outside, it is already over. For the author, Bakhtin observed, “always encompasses the whole temporally, he is always later, not only in time but in meaning as well.”8 If our own lives should be discovered to resemble literary structures, then each present moment, in which choice seems so palpable and time appears so rife with possibilities, would be recognized as something resembling the part of a film we just happen to be watching or the page in a novel we have just reached: we may not know the outcome of events but they have already been decided, in a sense have already happened. They are virtually there. There is no hope. This is what Bakhtin meant when he wrote that the life of a hero—and of ourselves, if the world resembles a narrative—is accompanied by “the tones of a requiem” that the hero does not hear (“AiG” [“Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel nosti”], 115).

It follows that art (like determinist philosophy) allows for only chimerical freedom: “The aesthetic embodiment of the inner human being anticipates from the beginning the hero's hopelessness as far as meaning is concerned; artistic visualization gives us the whole hero, enumerated and measured to the full extent; there must not be for us any meaning-related secrets to him, our faith and our hope must be silent” (“AiG,” 115). To use Bakhtin's terminology, art gives us a “soul”—a finalized image of a person—but not “spirit,” the active energy experienced from within as each of us enters a world that is open, “yet-to-come” and unfinalizable. Unfinalizability is apparently banished from art and therefore art would seem incapable of providing a concrete image of an unfinalizable world. For art has structure and closure, a teleology making all parts fit into a predetermined whole: and in this way philosophical determinism is mirrored by “aesthetic necessity,” as Bakhtin called it. “Ethical freedom (the so-called freedom of the will) is not only freedom from cognitive (causal) necessity, but also freedom from aesthetic necessity” (“AiG,” 105). And aesthetic necessity seems to be essential to art.

In the second stage of his thinking, Bakhtin at last found a solution. He discovered a writer—Dostoevsky—who had invented a way to represent indeterminacy and to populate his work with “spirit” rather than with “souls.” “Dostoevsky made spirit, that is, the ultimate semantic position of the personality, the object of contemplation, he was able to see spirit in a way in which previously, only the body and soul of man could be seen.”9 He did so by inventing a whole new genre, which Bakhtin called the polyphonic novel.

I imagine that no concept of Bakhtin's is so often misunderstood and misused as polyphony. I hardly ever read an article in which it is not confused with heteroglossia, which (I suppose) is something like confusing polygamy with heterodoxy. Polyphony and heteroglossia refer to quite different concepts and works can exhibit one without the other. Indeed, Bakhtin contended that all realistic novels before Dostoevsky exhibit heteroglossia but not polyphony. Polyphony does not mean mere multiplicity of voices.

As Bakhtin coined the term, polyphony defines a special relation between author and hero that allows the hero to be truly free. By “truly free” Bakhtin meant that no advance design or structure predetermines what the hero will do. In order to create characters capable of surprising him, the author surrenders his essential surplus of knowledge. He knows no more than other characters what a given character will do; that is, the author deliberately places himself on the same level as heroes within the novelistic world. In this way, a hero acquires a life of his or her own. The peculiar excitement of Dostoevsky's novels, which everyone experiences, derives primarily from this ability of characters partly to escape the author's control. Sensing a character's relative independence, readers often respond to him or her in ways usually reserved for real people. Thus Bakhtin noted the odd phenomenon that generations of highly sophisticated readers, who would not think of arguing with the ideological heroes of Turgenev or Conrad—who know that such characters have meaning only as parts of a whole work—have directly polemicized with Raskol'nikov and Ivan Karamazov. For Bakhtin, such critics are responding to something genuinely in the work, the fact that these characters are unlike those in other novels because they have real freedom. They can say a word of their own surprising to their author.

Thus Dostoevsky's major characters are truly unfinalizable in a way previously impossible. The plot of the work does not constrain them in advance; there is no question of foreshadowing here. They do not fulfill an advance design; on the contrary, the plot turns out to be the mere record of what they happen to do—as is the “plot” of our own lives. We sense Dostoevsky's characters as liberated from both causal and aesthetic necessity, and so we palpably sense human freedom in a way absent from all earlier literature.

We might put the point this way: Generally speaking, literary structure is not neutral with respect to philosophies of time. It strongly favors closed temporalities.10 It is therefore comparatively easy and common to make the shape of a work reinforce a fatalistic or deterministic view of time; as in Oedipus, the hero's fate is a given, known simultaneously by the oracles and the author, who, we are aware, has already recorded it. Moreover, if the work is well written, there are no loose ends; literary closure ties everything up. In this way, the structure of the work and the world can readily be made isomorphic (of the same shape).

But it is much harder for an author who believes in freedom and contingency to create a work isomorphic with such open temporality. For to be effective art would seem to require structure and closure, a place and meaning for every detail. We need to see why everything had to be the way it was or the work will seem flawed and out of control. But perfect fit, where everything is so arranged as to tend to a final goal and pattern, is just what the doctrine of open temporality denies. How then to make a work that is isomorphic with open time? Can one construct an artifice not of eternity but of temporality? Bakhtin's answer is that the polyphonic novel does just that. It overcomes the predisposition of art toward closed views of time.

If we return to the theological analogy with which Bakhtin was working, the polyphonic novel alters both people and God. As for people, they become capable of being many different things, as choice and contingency dictate. Leibniz believed that everything each of us does is already virtually present in us (although we don't know it). All our attributes and actions are present within us from the start. That Caesar would cross the Rubicon is and always was given in the very idea of Caesar; God sees it and sees things could be no other way, as surely as He recognizes that the sum of a triangle's angles must equal one straight angle. Leibniz views the real world the way a structuralist views a literary work. And we may perhaps add that those who have tried to view culture as a coherent system, to read it as they would read a poem, are willy-nilly reproducing many Leibnizian difficulties. We may recall that Candide was an answer to Leibniz and that Dostoevsky hoped to write “the Russian Candide”; from a Bakhtinian perspective, some contemporary cultural theories, which read a culture as if it were a poem, seem like varieties of panglossism.

In Dostoevsky's world, each person could be many things, as we can be if our world resembles Dostoevsky's. We are, as Bakhtin said, “non-coincident” with ourselves:

A man never coincides with himself. One cannot apply to him the formula of identity A e A. In Dostoevsky's artistic thinking, the genuine life of the personality takes place at the point of non-coincidence between a man and himself, at his point of departure beyond the limits of all that he is as a material being, a being than can be spied on, defined, predicted apart from his will, “at second hand”.

(Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 59)

In most novels, the authorial point of view, or the point of view imminent in the structure, is the organizing point of the whole, and the meaning of each character's words and actions is to be understood indirectly in terms of that structure. But in Dostoevsky there is no prior structure, no single authorial perspective for the whole. We sense instead that each major character could be such an organizing perspective, and so a novel by Dostoevsky gives us not a universe but what I prefer to call a heteroverse.

From a polyphonic perspective, God also changes. In theological terms, traditional poetics with its single “ultimate semantic authority” and modern “ideology” with its newtonian unity correspond to a particular understanding of the monotheistic God Who is both omnipotent and omniscient. In particular, poetics and determinism correspond to the God for Whom all time is present before His eyes, and for Whom time is therefore either an illusion or an empty form. God sees the whole pattern of history as the poet can in an instant contemplate the whole pattern of his poem; surprise is inconceivable for both.

But Bakhtin's God implicitly created the world the way Dostoevsky created his novels, polyphonically. In order to create truly free people, God surrendered his essential surplus of knowledge. What this means is that God subjected himself to time. As it happens, William James also saw that such a temporal God would be the consequence of indeterminism and he, too, imagined the Creator deciding in advance to make time not illusory but real. Let us suppose Him to say, James suggests, that “At various points, ambiguous possibilities shall be left open, either of which, at a given instant, may become actual” (“DD,” 181-82). Then God Himself becomes, by His own choice, historical:

This of course leaves the creative mind [of God] subject to the law of time. And to any one who insists on the timelessness of that mind I have no reply to make. A mind to whom all time is simultaneously present must see all things under the form of eternity. … So that none of his mental judgments can possibly be called hypothetical, and his world is one from which chance is excluded. Is not, however, the timeless mind a gratuitous fiction? And is not the notion of eternity being given at a stroke to omniscience only just another way of whacking upon us the block-universe, and of denying that possibilities exist?—just the point to be proved. To say that time is an illusory appearance is only a roundabout manner of saying there is no real plurality and that the frame of things is an absolute unity. Admit plurality and time may be its form.

(“DD,” 181 n1)

Properly conceived, time is the form of plurality; and freedom can only exist if time is so understood. If God creates us free, He created the world so that time matters.

In the officially atheist Soviet Union, Bakhtin could of course not make such theological arguments explicit. But he hinted at them when he used the “time-honored” technique of referring to literary representation of pagan deities rather than to an existing Christian God: “Dostoevsky, like Goethe's Prometheus, creates not voiceless slaves (as does Zeus), but free people, capable of standing alongside of their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him” (PDP [Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics], 6). Elsewhere Bakhtin alludes to the influence of the Book of Job on Dostoevsky, that is, of a character wanting to confront his Creator as an equal and to compel Him to answer like a defendant in court. And we may also remember that in the Book of Job God makes a bet with Satan. By their very nature, bets depend on uncertainty.11

Two ideas of God, two ideas of authorship: for “it is one thing to be active in relation to a dead thing, to voiceless material that can be molded and formed as one wishes, and another thing to be active in relation to someone else's living, autonomous consciousness” (“TRDB” [“Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book”], 285).

For James, “the timeless mind [of God] is a gratuitous fiction”; in Dostoevsky's novels as Bakhtin read them, the timeless mind of the author is no less gratuitous. Polyphony banishes structure. Read polyphonically, Dostoevsky's novels cannot, without significant distortion, be contemplated as a synchronic whole nor grasped as a pattern displayed to the mind in an instant. Such reading, the only kind allowed by traditional poetics, banishes time and real “eventness.”

But how is it possible, we may ask, for an author not to know what his own creation, a mere character, is going to do? The answer is that Dostoevsky used a special creative process that is sensed and supposed to be sensed by the reader. This process captures the throb of presentness when the creating author does not know what he or she is going to do next and makes of that presentness the temporality of the created work.

Most authors publish their works cleansed of the loose ends and false starts of the creative process. It is, of course, by no means uncommon for authors to be surprised by their characters, in the sense that in the course of writing it turns out that characters would not plausibly do what the author's advance plan demands; when this happens, authors typically change their plan. Such surprises are unwelcome, and before the work is published it is revised so that the new plan governs the whole. Otherwise the work would seem flawed. As I write this essay, I do not know, except in a vague way, just where I will end or what its precise shape will be; but before you read it, I will have cleaned all that up and tried to produce a structure where everything fits. Bakhtin spoke of authors removing the “scaffolding.”

By contrast, in polyphonic creativity, characters acting in surprising ways is the whole point. Surprise is planned—not any particular surprise, for then it would not be surprise at all, but situations that favor surprise. What for other authors is an unfortunate accident to be concealed is for Dostoevsky the very point of what he is doing, and it produces the work's central energy. He therefore did not clean up the text before publishing it but let the energy and suspense of creativity in process infect the depicted world with a truly processual temporality. Of course, such a method has its risks. It may lead to chaotic and barely readable works—anyone who knows Dostoevsky's unsuccessful novel The Raw Youth will be aware that this danger is real—but when the method succeeds (as it did in The Idiot and The Possessed), it creates a thrilling sense of freedom and palpable temporal openness unmatched by any other method.

As Bakhtin described Dostoevsky's creative process, he worked by first imagining “voice-ideas”—characters whose identity was fused with an ideology—often based on real Russian thinkers. He then brought these characters into dialogue, argued with them himself and imagined what replies they would make to a multitude of questions or pressures in a variety of agonizing situations. They would wind up saying things their real-life models never did and perhaps never would say. In the process, the characters changed, deepened, grew more complex and acquired new potentials. He repeated this deepening process several times. Only when Dostoevsky sensed characters as sufficiently rich in potential for the unexpected did he sit down to write. They palpitated with life; he knew they could do many surprising things, could behave radically differently depending on the situation and only needed richly described circumstances to propel them into unexpected actions and professions of belief. That is what the actual process of writing provided: not a predetermined design but a series of provocations.

Composition therefore involved bringing characters together in extreme situations and then, without knowing what would happen, guessing at what they would say or do. In this sense, Dostoevsky did not lead his characters anywhere, did not put words in their mouth, but listened to them and gave them new opportunities to speak. Above all, he did not “ambush” them by using advance knowledge of their destiny. They behave as they wish and the plot is just the record of what they say and do. And whatever they do, we sense that they could well have done something else.

In fact, the notebooks of some of Dostoevsky's novels sustain Bakhtin's analysis. Consider The Idiot.12 Typically for Dostoevsky—who was always in debt and barely able to meet the most pressing deadlines, who took advances and signed contracts that involved serious risks, and who was struck down suddenly by epileptic fits that left him inactive for days—he published the first part of this novel, the temporality of which conveys the frenetic pace at which it was written, without the slightest idea where the novel was to go next, much less how it would end.13 When an author does not have an advance plan, serial publication ensures that he cannot go back and make the earlier parts fit the ultimate design. There are bound to be loose ends, and there are; but somehow this novel seems all the better for them. After Part One, Dostoevsky struggled to continue. He did not figure out what the ending to this four-part novel would be until he had almost finished writing part three. In his notebooks we find the passage at which he at last breathlessly sketched out the ending we know—which has often been described as one of the most powerful in world literature—after which he appended the words: “not bad.14

I am therefore always amused when I read analyses of The Idiot (or other similarly composed Dostoevsky novels) in which the critic praises the artful way in which, from the very first page, the author foreshadows the ending. The ending of The Idiot, as everyone will recall, brings the rivals Myshkin and Rogozhin together over the corpse of Nastas'ia Filippovna, whom both have loved and whom Rogozhin has murdered. As it happens, the novel opens with Myshkin sitting opposite Rogozhin in the train on which Myshkin is returning from abroad; and critics have therefore seen the ending as already immanent in the beginning. That is, they read this novel as if time were abolished; they read it as a structure in which (as in all structures) all actions are ultimately simultaneous. Bakhtin's point is that this method, while appropriate for many works, is just what is inappropriate for Dostoevsky. It is imposed by the critic out of habit and out of failure to suspect that a work could be anything but a structure or a botch.

But we know as a matter of fact that the end of this novel was not immanent in the beginning. We know that Dostoevsky feverishly sketched out many courses of action; at each point he projected several possible futures. In fact, that is one way in which Dostoevsky understood time. Each moment can lead in many possible directions. To understand a moment is to understand not only where it did lead but where it might have led. To use the language I have coined, we must see the moment not under a foreshadow but under a sideshadow; Dostoevsky casts on each moment not the shadow of an inevitable future given by the structure, but a shadow “from the side,” from the other possibilities that might just as well have happened.

The point is a difficult one, so let me expand on Bakhtin's reasoning to explain it. In life, most of us believe, no advance plan dictates what will happen to us, though such thinking is tempting. We would smile at someone who imagined that he was immune to misfortune on a given occasion because then his life would not make a good story.15 Our lives, we know, are lived forward, not backward, and they could develop in many directions depending on our own choices and on contingencies beyond our control. And yet, it is always possible when we look back on our own or on someone else's life to make a coherent story out of it, to retell it so that it seems to fit an advance pattern. We can even find instances of what look like foreshadowing, although we know that in actuality events did not happen because later events were destined to happen (which is how foreshadowing works). Looking backward, earlier presents can always be given narrative pastness.

Why is this possible? Because even life lived forward involves repetitions, if for no other reasons than that we all have bad habits—we keep on making the same old mistakes—and there is a certain rough regularity in any social environment that keeps reproducing similar sets of circumstances. Such repetitions happen forward, not backward, and they require no underlying structure; but once they happen, they can always be narrated as if a plan were simply revealed over time. In fact, the conventions of narrative favor such a presentation, because narratives are told after the fact. To repeat: narratives are predisposed to understanding in terms of structure.

It would obviously be a fallacy in real life to assume that a mistake we made at age eight happened because a later mistake we were to make at age 48 was sending a sign backward, as in literary foreshadowing. We could make such a narrative of our lives but it would be false to real temporality. It would be false because it excludes the possibility that many other things could just as well have happened. We could have lived more lives than one. Many are offered, though one is chosen. The implicit determinism of foreshadowing closes down time. Had one of those other lives been lived, we may reflect, it would have been just as easy to read it as if it manifested foreshadowing and as if it happened inevitably according to a structure given in advance.

Those who read structure into The Idiot see the cases where early events did have consequences but they typically overlook the places where they did not. For example, Part One of the novel has written all over it signs of a future conflict between Myshkin and Gania, who repeatedly offends him, threatens him, and ominously (not just eponymously) calls him “an idiot.” The notebooks confirm that Dostoevsky, not knowing what was going to happen, was planting many diverse potentials that could be exploited or neglected as needed in the process of writing. But as the novel actually developed, Gania turns into a minor character and all of these hints remain loose ends. The final meeting with Rogozhin was just such a planted potential that happened to be exploited, but it might just as well have been left unactivated, as the parallel possibilities for Gania were. If in writing the novel Dostoevsky had arrived at a major conflict between Gania and Myshkin, critics would doubtless have discovered foreshadowing and ascribed inevitability. As it is, they simply overlook the possibility of this sort of plot. They see evidence of structure or of nothing. They do not conclude, as they should, that the novel they have does not trace an inevitable plot according to an advance structure with foreshadowing. What they should conclude is that in a polyphonic novel (as in the open temporality of real life) “the plot … is in any case conceived as one of many possible plots and is consequently merely accidental for a given hero” (PDP, 84).

Bakhtin also phrases his point this way: a Dostoevsky novel “takes place not in the past, but right now, that is, in the real present of the creative process. This is no stenographer's report of a finished dialogue, from which the author has already withdrawn and over which he is now located as if in some higher decision-making position” (PDP, 63). I would paraphrase this idea by saying that, in a peculiar way, the author's time and the character's time are simultaneous; the author decides on what the character does as the character does it. I say “in a peculiar way” because this simultaneity pertains to two distinct ontological realms, the real time of the author and the fictive time of the characters. The clocks of parallel universes tick in unison. This is a simultaneity not in time but of times.

If Bakhtin's literary history is accurate, then prior to Dostoevsky, these kinds of time were brought together only for comic and metaliterary effect, as Sterne sometimes does in Tristram Shandy.16 In such a situation, wit depends on the jolt produced and thereby testifies to its artifice. We must perceive the juxtaposition of times as a device for it to have its effect. But in Dostoevsky's case, our attention is not called, as it is Sterne, to the fact of synchronization. We may be entirely unaware of it and, presumably, critics before Bakhtin were unaware of it. Rather, the novel depends on the effect of synchronization. That effect pertains to our experience not of the device but of the characters. We respond to them as free because we sense that they are not preordained to act as they do. They make—are making—the work as they live and choose.

If the author's and character's time are made “simultaneous” in this strange way, what about the reader's time? Bakhtin did not address this question but it is not very difficult to extend his reasoning. In reading a work with structure—a “monologic” work, as Bakhtin called it—the reader relies on the knowledge that the author controls all details and events, on what Bakhtin called the author's “lateness.” Of course, only when the reader has completed the novel will that structure be apparent. The reader will be able to approximate the author's position (with its “essential surplus of knowledge”) only when rereading the work. By contrast, the reader of a polyphonic novel is closest to the author's position and temporality during a first reading. For then the reader's ignorance of the outcome is made to correspond with uncertainty of outcome, the uncertainty experienced by both characters and polyphonic authors. Thus a strange (if partial) triple synchronization takes place (of author, characters and reader).

In most novels, the implicit equation of ignorance of outcome with an outcome still undetermined—a key convention of novelistic reading17—is what allows readers to identify with characters. In a polyphonic novel, this sort of identification extends to the author in the process of creation as well. In non-polyphonic novels, the contemplation of the work from the author's perspective (as a completed structure) weakens suspense. In a polyphonic novel, one can adopt the author's and characters' perspectives together. This extension of Bakhtin's analysis suggests that it is perhaps to such tripling that the amazing power of Dostoevskian suspense may be attributed.

These observations also suggest that readers of Dostoevsky may experience less of the work's essential quality when rereading, which would not be the case if the work depended on structure rather than on eventness. This difference may be one reason why critics, who are almost by necessity rereaders, have somehow seemed especially remote from the experience of reading Dostoevsky. Perhaps special effort should be taken to recapture the thrill of first exposure.

In the third period of his thinking, Bakhtin returned to the problem of narrative temporality by a different route. The solution of polyphony evidently was not entirely satisfactory to him. The reason is that Dostoevskian time depends on a highly intensified present. In order to render choice palpable, Dostoevsky focused everything on those few critical moments when cataclysmic choices are made. We get what Bakhtin calls “the cross section of a single moment” (PDP, 29) and a presentness so dense that it resembles the moment before an epileptic fit as Myshkin experiences it—a moment when time itself is overcome and when (as Myshkin remembers the line from the Apocalypse) “there shall be time no longer.”

For Bakhtin, such a temporality made it impossible to understand all those aspects of life (such as individual moral choice and social responsibility) that demand a rich sense of biographical and historical time. Bakhtin believed that choice, responsibility and everything else that make a life meaningful—that allow it to add up—are temporally extensive. Moreover, he apparently distrusted the idea conveyed by Dostoevskian plotting that choices and turning points occur only at intermittent and dramatic moments of crisis. For Bakhtin, as for Tolstoy, people develop continually and prosaically. Every ordinary moment contains sideshadows and some measure of freedom. By exercising the small range of choice we have at each moment, we make ourselves and shape our future. And this is the way history happens as well.

Hoping to locate a model of prosaically open time, Bakhtin set aside the problem of author and hero to examine the temporality of the world represented in different kinds of narrative. He discovered the model he sought in the great realistic novels of the nineteenth century. In his writings on “the chronotope,” Bakhtin approached narrative genres as grounded in a specific sense of time. He was interested not in the specific events of particular works but in the generically given sense of what events are possible and plausible—in the field of possibilities against which a given plot unfolds. Thus his technique is to read through the specific events of works to reach the field of possibilities constituting the genre's chronotope or sense of temporality.

I cannot offer here a detailed analysis of each chronotope that Bakhtin explored. I can, however, try to elucidate the underlying logic of his argument. We all know by experience that in different genres different sorts of events are plausible. In adventure stories, it is quite likely that rescues will happen in the “nick of time”; if the heroine is strapped to a bomb with a ticking clock, we may anticipate that the hero will manage to pull the right wires not when there are 24 seconds remaining but just as the clock is recording zero. Such a sequence is extremely unlikely in a realistic novel of the type written by Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen or Lev Tolstoy. Their time has no nicks. Or to take another example: reading ancient biographies, like Plutarch's Lives, we know that a hero's qualities are given from the outset and that the story will concern how those qualities manifest themselves in specific circumstances. People grow the way a seed develops into a plant—by entelechy, as Aristotle wrote. The oak is already immanent in the acorn. In works of this sort, things do not essentially change; rather, they unfold. But in realistic novels people do become different bit by bit, which is why incidents cannot be transposed as they can in an adventure story or in a life of an ancient hero. To use Bakhtin's terms, there is real becoming in the novelistic world because people could easily have turned out differently. We have potential to be many different things, not just one, and our potentials themselves change over time, as some are lost and new ones acquired. In a novel there is no question of entelechy.

In that case, what precisely shapes our lives? Bakhtin's answer is a complex combination of factors, including the contingent choices of others, accidental circumstances that could not have been foreseen, the specifics of our social milieu, the changing society in which we live and, above all, the small choices we make moment by prosaic moment. Our identity is therefore processual and to a great extent contingent. One reason for Bakhtin's (and my) distaste for freudianism is its sense of the essential completion of the personality at a young age. In Bakhtinian terms, freudianism relies on a rather primitive chronotope, much as its model of hydraulic pressures seeking release is a rather primitive and mechanical account of mental processes. For Bakhtin, unfinalizability is coterminous with life, and freudianism therefore appeared to him a philosophy of death. For real people as Bakhtin understood them, development does not cease. Perhaps one reason that freudian interpretations so often seem reductive is that they de-novelize the novelistic chronotope by substituting a much simpler one in which character is finalized.

For Bakhtin, the single most important feature of novelistic time is the new relation established between the hero and the plot, and therefore between an individual and his or her biography. Again, the problem of the Dostoevsky book is now approached in terms set internally by the work rather than in terms of the author's relation to the character.

In contrast to the hero of novels, the epic and tragic hero, in Bakhtin's view, is neither more nor less than what he is. There is nothing else he could be. “Hopelessly ready-made,” he completely “coincides with himself”; there is no “gap” between his identity and his life.18 Therefore the plot expresses him utterly. “Outside his destiny, the epic and tragic hero is nothing; he is, therefore, a function of the plot fate assigns him; he cannot become the hero of another destiny or another plot” (“Epic and Novel,” 36). By contrast, the life led by a novelistic hero or heroine does not exhaust his or her identity. The novelistic hero could have been different. We sense that, in potential, he has more lives than one.

One of the basic internal themes of the novel is precisely the theme of the hero's inadequacy to his fate or his situation. The individual is either greater than his fate, or less than his condition as a man. He cannot become once and for all a clerk, a landowner, a merchant, a fiancé, a jealous lover, a father and so forth.

(“E&N” “Epic and Novel”], 37)

If the hero does become coincident with his condition, then he ceases to be a major character—by definition, perhaps, because in novels noncoincidence and the ability to “exceed” the plot is what defines characters as major.

It was in explaining these aspects of the novelistic hero that Bakhtin produced his most remarkable statement about the relation of character to time. He was clearly speaking not only of novelistic heroes but also of real people. Our defining quality as people is what Bakhtin calls “the surplus of humanness”:

An individual cannot be completely incarnated into the flesh of existing sociohistorical categories. There is no mere form that would be able to incarnate once and forever all of his human possibilities and needs, no form in which he could exhaust himself down to the last word … no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet not splash over the brim. There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness; there always remains a need for the future, and a place for this future must be found. … Reality as we have it in the novel is only one of many possible realities; it is not inevitable, not arbitrary, it bears within itself other possibilities.

(“E&N,” 37; emphasis added)

The essay containing this passage was not published until 1975, more than three decades after it was written. For it is virtually impossible not to detect in these lines a critique of Soviet marxism, which asserted that individuals can indeed be exhaustively explained by existing sociohistorical categories and which sought to produce a “new Soviet man” without a “surplus.” The target of this passage is not only marxism, but all philosophies, sociologies and psychologies that close down time. It also runs counter, as Bakhtin generally did, to the prevailing theories influential in American literature departments today.

The idea of “many possible realities” deepens the polyphonic idea that the “plot is only one of many possible plots” by endowing it with a sense of process and ongoing history. By different routes, both theories—of polyphony and of the novelistic chronotope—arrive at the concept of noncoincidence and the existence of genuine alternatives. And yet neither of the two theories entirely succeeds in Bakhtin's terms. Polyphony, as Bakhtin described it, misunderstands the past by seeing the present as essentially discontinuous and therefore ahistorical. On the other hand, the chronotopic theory of the novel never addresses the problem of a work's already written quality and the sense of destiny that such a quality imposes.

Perhaps the value of Bakhtin's theories lies in their deepening of the problems to be solved in any attempt to represent time as open. I remain confident that, however far in the future one looks, there will always be many interesting solutions to be found.


  1. This essay is adapted from the third chapter of my recently completed book, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming).

  2. Naturally, there are other traditions regarding criticism and philosophy in Russia.

  3. This, of course, is the view attacked by Dostoevsky's underground man. Slavic Review 52, no. 3 (Fall 1993).

  4. I adapt these terms from Ilya Prigogine. See Prigogine, From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980).

  5. These quotations from Bruno and Leibniz are taken from the article on “Time” in The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, ed. Philip P. Weiner (New York: Scribner's, 1973), 4:393, 394.

  6. William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” “The Will to Believe” and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and “Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine” (New York: Dover, 1956), 150. Further references are to “DD.”

  7. For a consideration of how this formulation applies to evolutionary biology, see Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989); and the discussion of Gould in chapter six of Narrative and Freedom.

  8. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel'nosti,” Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva, ed. S. G. Bocharov (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979), 104. Further references are to AiG.

  9. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book,” appendix 2 of Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 288. Further references to “Toward a Reworking” are to “TRDB”; references to this edition of the Dostoevsky book are to PDP.

  10. As Robert Belknap pointed out to me, my thesis here can be viewed as an extension or adaptation of Lessing's core argument in Laocoön. See especially chapters 16 and 17 of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Poetry and Painting, trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 78-90.

  11. In “TRDB,” Bakhtin directly compares polyphonic creative activity with God's relation to free people (“TRDB,” 285).

  12. The notebooks for The Idiot and The Possessed are yet to be examined with the attention they deserve, as documents in their own right and not as mere way stations toward these two novels. The American editions of these notebooks, which contain superb editorial commentary and material, are not mere translations but reflect considerable editorial effort and attention. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for “The Idiot”, trans. Katherine Strelsky, ed. Edward Wasiolek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967); and Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for “The Possessed”, trans. Victor Terras, ed. Edward Wasiolek (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). See also Robin Feuer Miller, “The Notebooks for The Idiot,Dostoevsky and “The Idiot”: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 46-89.

  13. On Dostoevsky's creative process and methods of working, see Jacques Catteau, Dostoyevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, trans. Audrey Littlewood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  14. The Notebooks for “The Idiot”, 242.

  15. I recall that, as a college student taking one of my first airplane flights, I caught myself thinking that the plane could not crash because then what sense would my life make?—and then reflecting that planes are held up only by physics, not by metaphysics; or as I would say now, by causes, not destinies or pre-given narrative structures.

  16. That is pretty much how Shklovsky reads Sterne's play with temporality. See Victor Shklovsky, “Sterne's Tristram Shandy: Stylistic Commentary” in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, eds., Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 25-57.

  17. Shall we call this the suspense convention?

  18. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 34. Further references are to “E&N.”

Further Reading

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Averintsev, Sergei. “Mikhail Baktin: Retrospective and Perspective.” Soviet Literature 8 (1988): 124-28.

A brief retrospective on Bakhtin's contributions to literary theory, written twelve years after his death.

Barsky, Robert F. “Bakhtin as Anarchist? Language, Law, and Creative Impulses in the Work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Rudolph Rocker.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 623-42.

Considers the problems of reading Bakhtin as an anarchist, comparing him to Rudolph Rocker and Mikhail Bakunin.

Bell, Michael Mayerfeld and Michael Gardiner, eds. Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words. London: SAGE Publications, 1998, 235 p.

Includes essays by Dorothy E. Smith, Hwa Yol Jung, and others. Essays by Peter Hitchcock and Michael Bernard-Donals are reprinted above.

Bernstein, Michael Andre. “When the Carnival Turns Bitter: Preliminary Reflections upon the Abject Hero.” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 283-306.

Argues that Bakhtin's carnivalization of values results not only in the breaking down of hierarchies and stale judgments but may result in the lack of a position from which any value can be affirmed.

Bezeczky, Gabor. “Contending Voices in Bakhtin.” Comparative Literature 46, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 321-45.

Examines the “plurarility of equally valid consciousnesses” described in Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.

Bocharov, Sergey. “Conversations with Bakhtin.” PMLA 109, no. 5 (October 1994): 1009-1024.

Considers whether Bakhtin was indeed the author of his contested works.

Cavanaugh, Clare. “The Forms of the Ordinary: Bakhtin, Prosaics and the Lyric.” The Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 1 (spring 1997): 40-56.

Argues that, for Bakhtin, the lyric poem is the ideal genre to articulate the vision of the world that he calls “prosaic.”

Coates, Ruth. “Christian Motifs in Bakhtin's Carnival Writings.” In Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author, pp. 126-51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Provides an extensive reading of Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World as a dialogue with the Christian worldview and as a resource to recuperate meaning under Stalin's repressive regime. The critic examines Bakhtin's treatment of the Christian concept of love, laughter, and the carnival from a Biblical perspective.

Elliot, Shanti. “Carnival and Dialogue in Bakhtin's Poetics of Folklore.” Folklore Forum 30, nos. 1-2 (1999): 129-39.

Provides an overview of how folklorists have relied on Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque in the study of folkloric traditions.

Emerson, Caryl. “The Outer Word and Inner Speech: Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and the Internalization of Language.” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 245-54.

Examines the contributions Bakhtin and his circle made to the study of linguistics.

———. “Keeping the Self Intact During the Culture Wars: A Centennial Essay for Mikhail Bakhtin.” New Literary History 27, no. 1 (winter 1996): 107-26.

Describes Bakhtin's contributions to the Russian field of “culturology.”

———. “Prosaics and the Problem of Form.” The Slavic and East European Journal 41, no. 1 (spring 1997): 16-39.

Argues that throughout his life Bakhtin was preoccupied with the potential of aesthetic form to enable—not merely define or reflect—life.

———. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1997, 293 p.

Addresses the critical significance of Bakhtin throughout the twentieth century.

———. “The Next Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (The View from the Classroom).” Rhetoric Review 19, nos. 1-2 (fall 2002): 12-27.

Explores the pedagogical implications of Bakhtin in the composition classroom.

———. “Beyond the Cutting Edge: Bakhtin at 107.” The Russian Review 61 (October 2002): 618-22.

Review of Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd's Bakhtin and Cultural Theory; offers a brief overview of the history of Bakhtin's critical reception.

———. “Coming to Terms with Bakhtin's Carnival: Ancient, Modern sub Specie Aeternitatis.” In Bakhtin and the Classics, edited by R. Bracht Branham, pp. 5-26. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002.

Contextualizes Bakhtin's theory of the carnival in the larger context of theories of the comedic, providing a Bakhtinian reading of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. “Borderlines and Contraband: Bakhtin and the Question of the Subject.” Poetics Today 18, no. 2 (summer 1997): 251-69.

Examines the slippage between “hero-author” and “self-other” in Bakhtin's works “Author and Hero” and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics.

Falconer, Rachel. “Bakhtin and the Epic Chronotope.” In Face to Face: Bakhtin in Russia and the West, edited by Carol Adlam, et al., pp. 254-72. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Uses Bakhtin's own “Epic and the Novel” and “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” to challenge his negative conception of epic.

Felch, Susan M. and Paul Contino, eds. Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith. Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2001, 252 p.

Collection of essays by noted Bakhtin scholars, including Ruth Coates, Graham Pechey, and others.

Godzich, Wlad. “Correcting Kant: Bakhtin and Intercultural Interaction.” Boundary 2 18, no. 1 (spring 1991): 5-17.

Argues that Bakhtin's early theory of “intercultural interaction” conceptualizes modernity as resulting from e interaction with the other; the critic suggests that Bakhtin's theory was a reaction to Kant's three Critiques.

Gossman, Lionel. “Review Essay.” Comparative Literature 38, no. 4 (fall 1986): 337-49.

Review of Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography, Mikhail Bakhtin; provides a brief biography of Bakhtin and summarizes his major contributions.

Graham, Colin. “Epic, Nation, and Empire: Notes Toward a Bakhtinian Critique.” In Bakhtin and Nation, edited by Barry A. Brown, et al., pp. 84-100. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.

Discusses the applicability of Bakhtin's theories of monologism and epic to postcolonial theories of literature.

Hale, Dorothy J. “Bakhtin in African American Literary Theory.” ELH 61, no. 2 (summer, 1994): 445-71.

Compares Bakhtin's notion of double-voicing to that of W.E.B. DuBois's concept of double consciousness and provides an overview of Bakhtin's influence on such theorists of African American literature as Henry Louis Gates and Barbara Johnson.

Hirschkop, Ken. “A Response to the Forum on Mikhail Bakhtin.” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 4 (June 1983): 672-78.

Compares literary theorists' visions of what Bakhtin's dialogic looks like in practice.

———. “Bakhtin Myths, or, Why We All Need Alibis.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 579-98.

Argues that Bakhtin has been mythologized, and examines the myths that both Bakhtin and his followers held dear.

Hirschkop, Ken and David Shepherd, eds. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory Manchester England: Manchester University Press, 2001, 276 p.

Essay collection with articles by Terry Eagleton, Ann Jefferson, Clair Wills, and others.

Hitchcock, Peter. “Introduction: Bakhtin/‘Bakhtin.’” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1997): 511-36.

Examines the ways in which conceptualizing Bakhtin's oeuvre as a comprehensive, internally consistent project undermines the contributions of his complex, contradictory theories.

Holquist, Michael. “Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-Linguistics.” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 307-19.

Describes the significance of the utterance, or speech act, for Bakhtin.

———. “Afterword: A Two-Faced Hermes.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 781-89.

Summarizes the viewpoints of several major critics on Bakhtin.

Linneberg, Arild. “‘Lovens lange arm’—The Long of Arm of the Law: The Hidden Discourse of the Law in Bakhtin's Theory of the Novel.” In The Novelness of Bakhtin, edited by Jørgen Bruhn and Jan Lundquist, pp. 89-105. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001.

A discussion of the theory of law implicit in Bakhtin's work.

Makhlin, Vitalii. “Face to Face: Bakhtin's Programme and the Architectonics of Being-as-Event in the Twentieth Century.” In Face to Face: Bakhtin in Russia and the West, edited by Carol Adlam, et al., pp. 45-53. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

Describes Bakhtin's concept of ‘being-as-event’ and places both Bakhtin and his thought in historical and political context.

———. “Questions and Answers: Bakhtin from the Beginning, at the End of the Century.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer 1998): 773-79.

Considers Bakhtin's importance as a theorist through the problem of authorship.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Who Speaks for Bakhtin? A Dialogic Introduction.” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 225-43.

Presents a dialogue between the author and another scholar on the significance of the Bakhtin Circle's theories of language.

———. “Bakhtin and the Present Moment.” The American Scholar 60, no. 2 (spring 1991): 201-22.

Summarizes the significance of Bakhtin for a lay audience.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990, 530 p.

Examines Bakhtin's theories of genre and form.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson, eds. Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1989, 330 p.

Anthology containing essays by several important scholars of Bakhtin's work.

Nagy, Gregory. “Reading Bakhtin Reading the Classics; An Epic Fate for Conveyors of the Heroic Past.” In Bakhtin and the Classics, edited by R. Bracht Branham, pp. 71-96. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002.

Argues that Bakhtin does not differentiate between classical and non-classical literature, and uses Bakhtin's theory of the epic to discuss such works as Homer's Odyssey.

Nielsen, Greg Marc. The Norms of Answerability: Social Theory Between Bakhtin and Habermas. Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 2002, 250 p.

Book-length study examining Bakhtin's and Jurgen Habermas's contributions to social theory.

Pan'kov, Nikolai. “Archive Material on Bakhtin's Nevel Period.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer 1998): 733-52.

A discussion of archival documents from Bakhtin's days as a student.

Patterson, David. “Mikhail Bakhtin and Dialogical Dimensions of the Novel.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45, no. 2 (winter 1985): 131-38.

Suggests that, for Bakhtin, the novel is not simply a genre—or even an anti-genre—but a dynamic force that carries with it the search for truth.

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

Book-length study of Bakhtin's philosophy and literary criticism; compares him to such thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault.

Peterson, Dale E. “Underground Notes: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and the African American Confessional Novel.” In Bakhtin and the Nation, edited by the San Diego Bakhtin Circle, pp. 31-46. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.

Suggests that Bakhtin's theory of double voicing, as demonstrated by his study of Dostoevsky, provides a useful model for reading African American fiction.

Poole, Brian. “Bakhtin and Cassirer: The Philosophical Origins of Bakhtin's Carnival Messianism.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall, 1998): 537-78.

Compares Bakthin to German philosopher Ernst Cassirer and explores the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque.

San Juan, Jr., E. “Bakhtin: Uttering the “(Into)nation” of the Nation/People.” In Bakhtin and the Nation, edited by the San Diego Bakhtin Circle, pp. 118-33. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.

A study of nationalist movements as dialogic speech acts.

Schuster, Charles. “Mikhail Bakhtin as Rhetorical Theorist.” College English 47, no. 6 (October 1985): 594-607.

Examines the concept of the dialogic in Bakhtin and discusses the implications for the teacher of rhetoric.

Stewart, Susan. “Shouts on the Street: Bakhtin's Anti-Linguistics.” Critical Inquiry 10, no. 2 (December 1983): 265-81.

An exploration of Bakhtin's critique of the abstract.

Wall, Anthony, and Clive Thomson. “Cleaning Up Bakhtin's Carnival Act.” Diacritics 23, no. 2 (summer 1993): 47-70.

Summarizes contemporary scholarship on Bakhtin.

Wesling, Donald. “Mikhail Bakhtin and the Social Poetics of Dialect.” Papers on Language and Literature 29, no. 3 (summer 1993): 303-22.

Employs Bakhtin's concept of social heteroglossia to read poetry in dialect.

———. Bakhtin and the Social Moorings of Poetry, Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 2003, 170 p.

Book-length study using Bakhtin to discuss the writings of ethnic and marginalized poets.

Additional coverage of Bakhtin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 113, 128; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 83; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 242; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.

Dale E. Peterson (essay date December 1993)

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SOURCE: Peterson, Dale E. “Response and Call: The African American Dialogue with Bakhtin.” American Literature 65, no. 4 (December 1993): 761-775.

[In the following essay, Peterson draws parallels between Bakhtin's theory of dialogism and Henry Louis Gates's work on the “double-voicedness” of African-American literature.]

Although it has taken twenty years to achieve, an exotic and somewhat rough-hewn Soviet import is now in great demand on the volatile commodities and exchange market that constitutes contemporary critical discourse. Yet even as Slavic scholars have dared announce the arrival in the West of “the age of Bakhtin,” they have, with understandable caution, wondered out loud about the shelf-life of this hastily consumed and culturally distant product.1 Beginning in 1968 with the English translation of Rabelais and His World, and accelerating in 1973 with the first American editions of Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics and V. N. Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Anglo-American literary criticism began to be infiltrated by a new set of terminological oddities borrowed from an embattled circle of unorthodox Soviet semioticians known as “the Bakhtin School.”2 This infiltration—enormously aided and abetted by the glossary of terms attached to a widely influential 1981 collection of Bakhtin's essays, The Dialogic Imagination—has resulted in a now-familiar critical diction, a Russian-American creole that is served up in many academic courses and discourses. What accounts, then, for the powerful attraction of a Bakhtinian “dialogical” analysis of cultural signs, despite its off-putting proliferation of polysyllabic neologisms?

The fifty-year delay in the transmission to America of Bakhtin's distinctive linguistic and poetic theories could not have been more timely. The introduction of Bakhtin's particular style of discourse analysis and “sociological poetics” coincided with a massive discontent directed at the failure of old and new modes of literary analysis to acknowledge the expressive power of marginalized and uncanonical forms of articulation. In an American intellectual culture belatedly coming to terms with bracketed and/or hidden signs of cultural pluralism, the critical texts of the Bakhtin school were able to perform a major intervention. As the central writings became better known, it was increasingly clear that these Russian accounts of effective verbal meaning stood in provocative opposition to both established tradition and the newest fashions in American literary criticism. To put it directly, the works of Bakhtin and his colleagues V. N. Voloshinov and P. N. Medvedev were explicitly post-Formalist and anti-Structuralist, and, perhaps most interestingly, they were prophetically critical of Deconstructionism, too. Although the specific arguments advanced in Bakhtin's major books on Rabelais, Dostoevsky, and novelistic discourse have not gone unchallenged in their migration westward, it is the orientation of Bakhtin's own discourse, his radically different point of departure about how words signify in cultural communication, that has mattered most.3 As I shall argue, Bakhtin's books have come into alliance, for good and profound reasons, with other voices that seek to contest the overly literary notion that textual meaning must either be definitive or infinitely deferred. Or, to re-accent the same point, no matter how folks talk, they be signifyin' all along.

The basic writings of the Bakhtin school occupy a strategic and distinct position within the contemporary discourse about discourse. They stand in clear opposition to Russian Formalist and American New Critical practices, which attempt to corral effective meaning within a self-sufficient verbal artifact that is, supposedly, a finished work—nothing but the sum of its devices and the unified tension of its managed ambiguities. The Bakhtin school also rejects the enclosure of the effective meaning of words and texts within the stable binary codes of opposed terms so systematically pursued by linguistic and literary Structuralists. Thus, a Bakhtinian analysis of verbal signification insists on freeing cultural signs from that prison-house of language constructed by doctrines that maintain either the autonomy of texts or “the deadlock of dyads.”4 Yet, and this is crucial, despite the Bakhtin school's partiality toward “unfinalized” signification in actual communication, there is not the least trace of sympathy for the radical Deconstructionist move toward “the endless play of signifiers.”5 Bakhtin manages to rein in the infinite deferrals of signification by insisting that any utterance, at any given moment of enunciation and/or reception, is projected into a delimited “field of answerability”: “Semantic phenomena can exist in a concealed form, potentially, and be revealed only in semantic cultural contexts of subsequent epochs that are favorable to such disclosure.”6 Thus, in the current agitated climate of critical theory, Bakhtin's socially positioned, contextualized understanding of signs and communication takes on a reassuring rather than an abysmal open-endedness. Bakhtinian “dialogics” offer a way to open out and ventilate texts in complex social cross-currents while keeping at bay the heavy weather of a chaotic relativism. But how is this distinctive feat possible, theoretically and practically?

As Bakhtin's translators and explicators have noted, the starting point for his particular analysis of verbal signification is the notion that all speech and writing is “utterance.” In Russian, the term (vyskazyvanie) is freighted with its own peculiar significance; normally translated as “expression,” it literally denotes the active process of speaking out and having one's say, of (ex)postulating, to or with an interlocutor. In the beginning, Bakhtin's word is utterance, which is to say that the fundamental verbal sign is already an act of articulation. What is emphatically there is a propulsive energy directed at pronouncing a heard, or overheard, message. In other words, articulation is a primary act of cultural intervention, but it inserts itself into a prevailing discourse; it orients itself toward an anticipated respondent. In Bakhtin, speaking out, or self-expression, is ever mindful of the already spoken and necessarily attentive to the internalized other, the co-respondent. Consequently, we all struggle to in-tone an understanding by others of what we would signify through our words. We do this by re-accenting, as best and as shrewdly as we can, the linguistic rules and cultural codes that inhabit our socialized consciousness. The actual word that gets communicated is for speaker, writer, listener, and reader a contextually embedded, socially constituted, intersubjective event that allows for unfinalized but not indeterminate meaning.

From this perspective, which insists on the pragmatic and performative aspect of each word as communiqué, signification is always and necessarily “trans-linguistic.” As Voloshinov puts it, “The actual reality of language—speech—is not the abstract system of linguistic forms … and not the psychophysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance.”7 By the same token, the significance of individual texts is always and necessarily transactional. As Bakhtin himself reminds us, any discourse is inherently double-voiced: “Within the arena of almost every utterance an intense interaction and struggle between one's own and another's word is being waged, a process in which they oppose or dialogically interanimate each other. The utterance so conceived is a considerably more complex and dynamic organism than it appears when construed simply as a thing that articulates the intention of the person uttering it.”8 The long and the short of it—and by far the most culturally influential side of it—is that Bakhtinian discourse analysis presumes that utterances come into the world showing and voicing the fact that they are sites of social contestation. Texts display themselves as linguistic arenas in which perceptible cultural conflicts are acting out or acting up. This was a position that accorded well with the growing conviction among a new generation of African American writers and readers that the nation's literary culture had not begun to register what black expression was signifying.

A major revisionary turn in the perception of the cultural work being performed by African American texts coincided with the gradual transmission of Bakhtinian redefinitions of verbal meaning as culturally situated utterance. Eventually, there arose a genuinely dialogic relation between the two language-oriented modes of cultural interrogation. What emerged first, however, was a richly polyvocal chorus of revisionist readers who were adamant about the need to hear all the voicings simultaneously present in the expressive traditions of African American discourse.9 A new generation of critics reclaimed and built upon the excluded, rejected, or ignored dimensions of black American writing. Not by accident, what was retrieved and brought to notice was primarily the “impure” legacy of tricky, artful, evasive, obviously hyphenated “Afro-American” writing. There was a sudden reappraisal of predecessors who had been largely deleted from the canon of black authorship because their texts were thought to display a “crossing-over” from or a “double-crossing” of authentic spokesmanship for the race. Rectifying an earlier neglect or contempt, sophisticated young readers proclaimed the merits of obscure or allegedly obscurantist writers like Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison and then proceeded to claim a centrality for them as well. University-trained critics literally sounded the utterances of previously suspect writers and found in them a subtle transcription of the slave culture's crafty oral modes of public expression. The irreverent double-talk that American blacks had gotten away with in spirituals, blues, and tale-telling was now found to be present in the most markedly “literary” texts within the African American narrative tradition. Once that uncovering discovery was made, it became possible to re-evaluate black texts that engaged in all manner of verbal play and cross-cultural duplicity.

By 1983, two young black critics had articulated ambitious theories alleging a culturally distinct African American expressive difference; this theorizing emerged from both an intrinsic and extrinsic critique of the so-called literature of the black experience. In different, but equally effective ways, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. arrived at a primary insistence on the inherent “double-voicedness” of African American writing. Both argued strenuously to restore an ear for the vernacular within the literate texts of American blackness. Their separate projects each entailed a long-overdue foregrounding of the rhetorical and expressive values encoded in African American writing. In a major revision of past critical practices by blacks and whites, both called for an end to a tone-deaf and word-blind blanching and blanking out of African American discourse. The traditional reading of black literature as the plain protest of “humans like us” had reduced a performance of cultural contestation to an “indentured” discourse that seemed to be subjecting itself to an imposed definition of universal sameness. As Gates indignantly announced, “Because of this curious valorization of the social and polemical functions of black literature, the structure of the black text has been repressed and treated as if it were transparent.10 Baker put it somewhat differently but no less strongly: “The only means of negotiating a passage beyond this underclass [status] … is expressive representation. Artful evasion and illusion are equally traditional black expressive modes in interracial exchange” (Blues, 195-96). What was being called for was a theory of African American literature that finally allowed for the duplicitous slippage of stable meaning, for the “critique oblique” that prevails in trickster discourses and acts of cultural survivalism.11

Had he lived to hear of it, Bakhtin would have delighted in the significant crossover that has now occurred between book-smart definitions of “signification” and street-smart appreciations of “signifyin(g).” Finding useful an elaborate dialogical pun, Gates has devised a mature theory of African American discourse patterns that depends upon rapid, context-specific apprehension of “signifyin(g)” significations. He has in mind a whole range of verbal behaviors from the behind-the-back double-talk so joyously celebrated in the slave tales of the Signifying Monkey to the complex intertextuality of Ishmael Reed's pastiches of represented blackness. Gates's core argument is that African American expression has traditionally cultivated a high degree of “metaphoric literacy” because public articulation within earshot of a master discourse requires “monkeyshines” and the “aping” of rhetorical figures. Signifyin(g) is, then, “essentially, a technique of repeating inside quotation marks in order to reverse or undermine pretended meaning, constituting an implicit parody of a subject's complicity”; it is repetition heard as revision in one deft discursive act.12 By this definition, signifyin(g) is a prime instance of Bakhtin's “internally polemical discourse—the word with a sideward glance at someone else's hostile word.”13

Though more embedded in a nonlinguistic vocabulary, Baker, too, draws from a theorized vernacular base to argue for a singular process that constitutes “Afro-American expressive culture.” In Baker's recent work, cultural specificity is audibly auditory; for him, American black discourse is figured and re-figured in a blues matrix, a performed locomotion of societal cargo that comes to have commodity value in itself: “the blues stanzas … roll through an extended meditative repertoire with a steady train-wheels-over-track-junctures guitar back beat. … If desire and absence are driving conditions of blues performance, the amelioration of such conditions is implied by the onomatopoeic training of blues voice and instrument. Only a trained voice can sing the blues” (Blues, 8). This blues matrix extends Northward to literacy in the founding text of Harlem Modernism, Alain Locke's The New Negro. As Baker hears it, Locke's anthology collects “the fullest extensions of a field of sounding possibilities; it serves as both the speaking manual and the singing book of a pioneering civilization freed from the burden of nonsensically and polemically constrained expression.”14 It should be noted, however, that African American discourse may easily become a music unheard unless it is finally and fully appreciated as a mode for sounding reality and for signifyin(g) resistance to authorized associations.

As both Gates and Baker demonstrate, an ear for Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” comes readily to well-attuned African American literary scholars. In fact, this responsiveness is much in evidence at present, and it has already contributed much to a heightened awareness of textual power in African American writing. That said, it must also be admitted that there has been a rather selective hearing of Bakhtin's available words, a hearing that has been particularly sensitive to the empowering and emancipatory implications of the Russian's polyphonic discourse analysis, but only gradually and reluctantly attentive to the problematic and double-edged aspects of Bakhtin's theory of the utterance as a site of unavoidable semantic contestation.

Gates, for instance, is fond of citing and re-citing one particular excerpt from Bakhtin's influential essay “Discourse in the Novel.” It stands, in fact, as a symptomatic epigraph to Gates's recent discussion of “A Theory of the Tradition.” I quote it as given:

language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes “one's own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral or impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one's own.15

In this selection, Gates's Bakhtin appears to speak monologically for the successful subversion, through creative “take over,” of the alien implications resident in any discourse. But in the complete passage, Bakhtin goes on to make his characteristic emphasis on the resistance of all language to appropriation: “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 intonations and accents, is a difficult and complicated process” (Dialogic, 294). To my hearing, some of the finest and most refined applications of Bakhtinian analysis in the present-day reconstruction of the African American literary legacy fall short, in their celebratory mood, of listening to the whole story.

With justifiable pride, Gates has claimed that his generation of black and feminist critics brought Zora Neale Hurston into visibility as a cardinal figure in the African American literary canon. His own powerful argument for Hurston's centrality rests upon a “dialogical” reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God that proclaims it to be the first example in the African American tradition of a “speakerly text” (181). In making this argument, Gates is building the case for a special, innovative form of intertextuality that Hurston's mode of writing realizes. It is a type of intertextuality that Gates rightly associates with Russian Formalist studies of literary ventriloquisms of orality (so-called skaz) and with Bakhtin's studies of a hidden dialogicality within modes of narration. It is worth noting that Russian theoretical pre-texts seem to take on a special pertinence in illuminating how certain types of experimental black prose actually signify.

The crucial point, though, is that Hurston's narrative procedure itself dramatizes and enacts the “voicing” of a culturally obscured expressivity. A previously hidden outspokenness is given its tongue. In Hurston's novel, a black female sensibility and sensuality inserts itself forcefully into prior discursive structures (white and black, literate and oral) that had little or no room for such expression. But whose language is it that speaks for Janie Starks's extended backtalk?

Gates correctly emphasizes that the narrative of personal emergence we overhear is a composite text that blends dialectic speech patterns and formal lyrical transcriptions of ineffable private experience: “it is a bivocal utterance … that no one could have spoken, yet which we recognize because of its characteristic ‘speakerliness,’ its paradoxically written manifestation of the aspiration to the oral” (208). This mode of double-voiced expression, which Bakhtin understands to be an unstable amalgam of an author's willed monologue and a character's zone of speech, is inherently problematic. To Bakhtin's perception such “quasidirect discourse” perfectly exemplifies the ongoing struggle of novelistic narrators to obliterate the linguistic boundaries between authorial and characterized speech that nonetheless remain in hidden dialogue with one another. Gates, however, chooses to celebrate, in Hurston's name, the achievement of a utopian resolution of contending languages.

Their Eyes is, for Gates, “a paradigmatic Signifyin(g) text” precisely because its narrative strategies “resolve that implicit tension between the literal and the figurative … between standard English and black dialect” (192-93). But this claim calls a willful halt to dialogical tensions in order to proclaim Hurston's victorious inscription of a mythical African American speech essence. Ultimately, Gates sees Their Eyes as a canonical text that is engraved in an African American “third language,” in an “oral hieroglyphic” that records the “thought-pictures” commonly transmitted by black discourse (215). This is an odd terminus for a theory of expression that had envisaged a sympathy between the destabilizing cultural work of “signifyin(g)” and Bakhtin's dialogical model of unfinalized literary utterance. Sadly, one suspects that Gates has merely re-dressed the discredited doctrine of American exceptionalism by giving it African American clothing, cloaking it in Hurston's gorgeous mantle.16

Fortunately, Hurston's complex narrative performance begins and ends by underlining a powerful anxiety about mouth-to-mouth appropriations of life histories. As Janie Starks passes the village “bander log” on which the “porch monkeys” hold forth with their tall tales, she notes: “Ah see Mouth-Almighty is still sittin' in de same place. And Ah reckon they got me up in they mouth now.”17 This offers a startling image of folktalk as Moloch, but it also serves as fair and ironic warning to an act of narration that threatens to consume Janie wholly in its double-voiced mouth. In the end, Hurston's Janie knows that speaking for others is always a pretense: “Let 'em consolate theyselves wid talk. … It's uh known fact, Phoeby, you got tuh go there tuh know there” (285). And Janie's act of speaking for herself, as Barbara Johnson has demonstrated, originates with Hurston's conviction that the impulse to articulate experience arises from not knowing how to mix interior monologue with outside discourses.18 By this analysis, we can place Hurston's text back in close sympathy with a Bakhtinian understanding of all utterance as the motivated sign of a self-difference struggling to insert itself and to signify within a repertory of given speech genres.

Whereas the notion of African American intertextuality in Gates remains rather self-enclosed and literary, others among the reconstructionist critics have moved more boldly toward the ideological and generic intertextuality envisaged by Bakhtin's dialogic imagination. Houston Baker, for instance, has advanced a sophisticated argument that presents the Trueblood episode from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as “a meta-expressive commentary on the incumbencies of Afro-American artists” (Blues, 175). Jargon aside, Baker persuasively situates Ellison's notoriously “race-y” confession of a poor black man's involuntary incest in actively dialogic relation with a wide range of signifying systems. Baker is especially attuned to that side of Bakhtin conveyed by Julia Kristeva—the subversive implanting of multiple referents and multiple pitches of address in premeditated acts of “carnivalized” discourse. As a result, Baker sees both the performative value and the ideological tensions within the black sharecropper's complex act of “bluesy” confession to eager white ears. And Baker further implies that Trueblood's remunerative, badass riff stands in for the yield harvested by that literary “sharecropper” Ellison. Thus, what is finally made visible is the problematics of entertainment as the culturally accepted mode of black expression. Playing up and acting out benightedness is both scam and angst; the exchange between a performance artist and the patronized patron cuts both ways. But, having seen all this, Baker, too, calls a halt to the endless dialogic tension by suggesting that Ellison implies that “Afro-Americans, in their guise as entertainers, season the possum of black expressive culture to the taste of their Anglo-American audience maintaining, in the process, their integrity as performers” (194). The integrity of masking is, at best, an unstable concept, one made necessary by an unresolved and inexpressible clash of cultural signals. Ultimately Baker chooses to celebrate Trueblood's bluesy, trickster discourse as a victorious paradigm of “Afro-American expressive culture.” But to ears (like Ellison's) accustomed to the defiant yet defensive sounds of self-conscious and class-conscious Russian narrators, what also resonates is the special pathos that informs the protective indirection of all culturally devalued speakers and communities.19

The latest development in the ongoing African American dialogue with Russian dialogism is to contest the production and enunciation of canonforming narratives about a singular tradition or language essence. Not surprisingly, the voices of protest have tended to be female.20 It should also come as no surprise that the correction of these “master narratives” has taken place with some strategic assistance from the Bakhtin school. The current controversy raises a challenge to the notion of cultural paradigms by demonstrating how alternative discourses are themselves shaped by and immersed in shifting social contexts. Black texts, like other doubly addressed utterances, are culturally produced and contextually interpreted within specific sets of social dynamics. The reconstructionist project itself, as Hazel Carby has argued, is embedded in sociolinguistic variables: “The struggle within and over language reveals the nature of the structure of social relations and the hierarchy of power, not the nature of one particular group. The sign, then, is an arena of struggle and a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction. … we must be historically specific and aware of the differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community.”21 This is dialogism extended into critical discourse itself, and the argument, as Carby generously acknowledges, derives from Voloshinov's pioneering work in contextual linguistics.

As Bakhtin argued in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, “every literary discourse more or less sharply senses its own listener, reader, critic, and reflects in itself their anticipated objections, evaluations, points of view. In addition, literary discourse senses alongside itself another literary discourse” (196). This may seem to some like a very Russian generalization, since it is in Dostoevsky's embattled and contending polyphonies that “almost no word is without its intense sideward glance at someone else's word” (202). Yet Toni Morrison has recently spoken of African American literariness in terms that evoke a similar restless reconstitution of identity: “Now that the Afro-American artistic presence has been ‘discovered’ actually to exist. … [w]e are not, in fact, ‘other.’ We are choices. And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to examine centers of the self and to have the opportunity to compare these centers with the ‘raceless’ one with which we are, all of us, most familiar.”22 It does seem that a never-complete (ex)postulation of difference has particular significance for the Russian and African American cultural imaginations.

There is obviously a particular pointedness, a special ground of receptivity, when Bakhtin's theory of the utterance gets carried over into the African American literary-critical community. Consider yet one more formulation of the Bakhtinian position on “speech-acts”: “Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including creative works) are filled with others' words, with varying degrees of otherness or of ‘our-own-ness,’ with varying degrees of familiarity and of alienation. These words of others bring with them their own expression, their own intonational value, which is assimilated, reworked, and reaccented by us.”23 Given this understanding, the very language by which “we” would articulate our being is experienced as an occupied zone. While this depiction may seem theoretically acute or even generally valid, it certainly applies, practically speaking, to the situation of literary discourse in the Russian and the African American language communities. Literature itself, in cultural-historical terms, was introduced as a European institution that was both alien and central as an exclusionary norm of articulate identity.24 Under these circumstances, Russian and African American literary texts were from their inception bound to be performative and contestatory speech-acts. It is no accident that Russian and African American literary texts tend toward formal anomaly and “hidden polemic.” In both communities, literate texts became theaters of enactment for self-conscious and “double-voiced” utterances pitched against a presumed illiteracy.

It has taken a while, but Bakhtin's philosophy of articulation as a contextually formed struggle to disrupt or modify cultural conventions has fallen on sympathetic ears. At present, the African American reconstructionist critics are culturally situated to give Bakhtin an especially full hearing and creative response. They understand, as Russians do, that in cultural communities presumed to be inarticulate, literature necessarily takes the shape of Utterance Writ Large. But no one is excluded from understanding the dilemma this dialogue speaks to. Emerson, too, had intimations that self-expression must always antagonize on, kicking against the rubrics of inherited speech: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards we suspect our instruments.”25


  1. See Gary Saul Morson's characterization of “The Bakhtin Industry” in Slavic and East European Journal 30 (Spring 1986): 81-90; and, most especially, Caryl Emerson's judicious account of “Problems with Bakhtin's Poetics,” SEEJ 32 (Winter 1988): 503-25.

  2. It is generally accepted that Mikhail Bakhtin was the Socratic inspirer, the éminence grise behind, if not the chief author of, three extremely sophisticated quasi-Marxist refutations of Formalism, Freudianism, and Saussurean linguistics that were officially published between 1927 and 1929 under the names of P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov. The correct ascription of actual authorship is a highly debatable matter. The discussion of the disputed texts in Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984) has led to turbulent polemics against their alleged “Bakhtinolatry”; see, for instance, I. R. Titunik, “The Bakhtin Problem,” SEEJ 30 (Spring 1986): 91-95; and Nina Perlina, “Funny Things are Happening on the Way to the Bakhtin Forum,” Kennan Institute Occasional Papers #231 (Washington, D.C.: 1989). Recently, Morson and Emerson have resolved their doubts and declared for a dialogic colloquium among the three authors; see their introduction to Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1989).

  3. To be specific, Bakhtin's oddly single-minded notion of the “carnivalization” of Rabelais's total discourse in Gargantua and Pantagruel has been taken to task in Richard M. Berrong's Rabelais and Bakhtin (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1986). Earlier, in Rethinking Intellectual History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983), Dominick La Capra had summarized the substantive reservations of historians regarding the supposedly therapeutic “gay relativism” inscribed, for Bakhtin, in every social carnival. Many Western Slavists have remained unconvinced that Dostoevsky could be said to have composed a truly “polyphonic,” decentered narrative; see, for instance, René Wellek, “Bakhtin's View of Dostoevsky: ‘Polyphony’ and ‘Carnivalesque,’” in Russian Formalism: A Retrospective Glance, ed. Robert Louis Jackson and Stephen Rudy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Center for International and Area Studies Publications, 1985). Finally, in the article already cited (1988), Emerson admirably acknowledges the litany of objections to date, including Bakhtin's sentimentalizing of “folk laughter” and his privileging of “novelistic” form and crude schematization of “monologic” expression in the lyric.

  4. The term for linguistic Structuralism's confinement of meaning to relational pairs is taken from Richard Terdiman's interesting critique in Discourse/Counter-Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985).

  5. There is an excellent discussion of Bakhtin's closeness to, and distance from, the Derridean correction of Structuralist linguistics in Holquist's essay “The Surd Heard: Bakhtin and Derrida,” in Gary Saul Morson's collection, Literature and History: Theoretical Problems and Russian Case Studies (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1986), 137-56. Morson's own commentary (192-201) sharpens the distinction by emphasizing Bakhtin's focus on the interpretive moment as a cultural process that always strives to reconstruct given codes situationally and thereby to reduce the inherent uncertainty of utterances.

  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986), 5.

  7. V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York: Seminar, 1973), 94.

  8. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 354-55. Further citations from this volume will be noted within parentheses in the text.

  9. Perhaps the fullest account of the important generational shift between an “integrationist” and an exclusivist understanding of what constitutes “Afro-American expressive culture” appears in Chapter 2 of Houston A. Baker Jr.'s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), 64-112. The crucial turn toward a vernacular and ear-attuned perception of African American texts and their complex signifying was heralded in Stephen Henderson's influential Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: Morrow, 1973).

  10. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Criticism in the Jungle,” in his edited volume, Black Literature and Literary Theory (New York: Methuen, 1984), 6.

  11. Exactly contemporary with the work of Gates and Baker, Michael G. Cooke, in Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), was also locating a culturally-specific expressivity in two forms constitutive of an African American “critique oblique.” The blues and oral signifyin' “by their obliquity … enabled the culture to exist without demanding, indeed without provoking recognition” (21-22).

  12. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 240.

  13. M. M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), 196.

  14. Houston A. Baker Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 84.

  15. Bakhtin, quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 1. Further citations from this influential volume will be noted in parentheses in the text.

  16. A similar recent attempt to enlist Bakhtin's dialogics in a campaign to promote a black American exceptionalism may be located in Michael Awkward's Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989). Awkward argues for the existence of “non-expropriating refigurations of precursorial texts” as a distinct tradition among African American female writers, invoking Bakhtin's discussion of “the necessity of discursive appropriation” but also claiming a cultural and gendered privilege of “noncompetitive revision” within the African American community of women writers.

  17. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), 16. Further references will be included in the text inside parentheses.

  18. Barbara Johnson, “Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Gates, Black Literature, 205-19.

  19. I have in mind specifically the sensitive, nuanced literary transcription of the bicultural divide between peasant performances and aristocratic auditions in the Russian tradition of “rural sketches” since Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches of 1852. There is, by the way, a remarkable parallel between Ralph Ellison's often cited definition of the origin of the blues—“an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it … by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism”—and Turgenev's depiction of the auditory impact of Yasha's soaring folksong technique in his famous tale “The Singers.” Ellison's definition is from his 1945 essay, “Richard Wright's Blues,” as reprinted in Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), 78.

  20. An intelligent cautionary word about the institutional and “dialogical” pressures driving critics of a marginalized literature toward reductionism has been voiced by Wahneema Lubiano: “The single greatest difficulty facing Afro-American scholars is the need to figure out, in the space of an article or a book, how to convey the full complexity of periods or genres or intertextual relationships. … The summarizing that is so much a part of the work of an Afro-Americanist is information organization that concretizes the amorphous at the cost of simplifying. Furthermore, because we are speaking of and to a discourse that is racialized and marginalized, the summaries construct essentialist categories. The abuse of the ‘Afro-American tradition’ is continual and assured” (“Constructing and Reconstructing Afro-American Texts: The Critic as Ambassador and Referee,” American Literary History 1 [1989], 432-47). See also Mae G. Henderson's “Response” to Baker's theorizing about the poetics of Afro-American women's writing, a “dialogical engagement” that resists the “totalizing character of much theory and criticism,” in Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston A. Baker Jr. and Patricia Redmond (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), 155-63.

  21. Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 17.

  22. Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989): 8-9.

  23. M. M. Bakhtin, Estetika Slovesnogo Tvorchestva, ed. S. G. Bocharov (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1979), 269.

  24. The central article of faith about the culturally constructed “Russianness of Russian literature” was voiced by modern Russia's first literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky. In Morson's paraphrase, “Belinsky defined the Russian literary tradition as an antitradition. He described its major works as self-conscious challenges to the basic presuppositions of Western thought and to the inscription of those presuppositions in literary genres. To know a work as Russian … is to recognize the European conventions they invert, parody, or ostentatiously defy” (Literature and History, 24).

  25. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” in Essays: Second Series (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903), 75. As early as 1844, Emerson anticipates that the full enunciation of human particularity entails the deconstruction of generic discourse and the inevitable onset of an age of linguistic suspicion.

Carol Adlam (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Adlam, Carol. “Ethics of Difference: Bakhtin's Early Writings and Feminist Theories.” In Face to Face: Bakhtin in Russia and the West, edited by Carol Adlam, et al., pp. 142-59. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Adlam discusses the ways in which Bakhtin's concepts of carnival, double-voicing, heteroglossia, and polyphony have been employed in feminist literary criticism, arguing that Bakhtin was a precursor of feminist theories of language.]


The impact of Bakhtin on twentieth-century thought shows no signs of abating in his centenary year. The abundance of both exegetic and applied research testifies to the appeal of Bakhtinian concepts, and in many instances, reference to that abundance is structured by means of a barely acknowledged appeal to a hierarchy between the two forms of research. The splash made by Bakhtin's texts has produced ripples across the disciplines the world over, but there is dispute as to which ripples lie closest to the centre that is ‘Bakhtin’. In contexts that know no geo-political boundaries, some of those ripples are seen to so deviate from the spirit of Bakhtin as to be utterly negligible; ‘-isms’ (neo-Marxism, feminism, and multiculturalism) that, in the words of Caryl Emerson in a recent interview in the Russian journal Dialog. Karnaval. Khronotop, ‘in Bakhtin's vision of things, would never be assigned to the category of higher knowledge’ [v bakhtinskom videnii veshchei, nikogda ne bylo by otneseno k kategorii vysshego znaniia], or bear the hallmark of longevity that is bestowed by entering the process of ‘great time’.1 Feminists in particular have, despite extensive and rigorous work on Bakhtin, been vilified for muddying the allegedly clear blue waters of Bakhtin studies. What follows is an attempt to put forward in detail some reasons to support feminist appropriations—or perhaps what would be better termed recuperations—of Bakhtin's work, to examine some of the matches and mismatches between the two areas.

In the context of Bakhtin studies feminists face a burden of justification common to all those engaged in non-exegetic research. Bakhtin's own concept of the construction of meaning as a product of specific spatiotemporal placement, and of utterances and texts as correspondingly susceptible of new readings and fresh applications provides the loophole through which charges of misuse or misappropriation can be, and frequently are, pre-empted. Bakhtin's insistence on understanding meaning/activity as ineluctably partaking of ‘the unique unity of ongoing Being’ (TPA [Toward a Philosophy of the Act] 2) has been employed by pro- and anti-feminists alike, in the first instance to demonstrate his own lack of credentials as a proto-feminist thinker in his relationship to his wife Elena Nikolaevna Bersh-Okolovich (Bakhtina),2 and in the second to argue that the texts themselves have a certain sanctity that demands that the line be drawn somewhere to stem the tide of rampant, mechanical over-application. The issue of what is ‘misappropriated’ by Bakhtin researchers begs a definition of the criteria by which what is ‘appropriate’ to Bakhtin is agreed, and these criteria are themselves often formed as a result of an—at least implicit—appeal to the direct context in which Bakhtin was writing.3 Both arguments ignore to a certain extent the implications of the much-quoted continuation of the above citation from Toward a Philosophy of the Act: ‘The act of our existence, of our being, looks in different directions like the two-headed Janus: at the objective unity of our cultural field and at the ‘never-repeatable uniqueness of actually lived and experienced life’ (TPA 2). To contain Bakhtin's own work within its own ‘unreiterable’—and therefore evidently unattainable—‘singularity’ of existence is to read Bakhtin against himself, to ignore the potential carried by texts in ‘the objective unity’ of ever-altering cultural fields. In the broad context of twentieth-century Western thought in the humanities, the impact of feminism is so great that it cannot be denied a significance which enables the possibility of dialogue between it and Bakhtinian thought, seen with the ‘objective unity’ of our own cultural influences in mind. Bakhtinian thought has had an impact on a similar scale: therefore to invoke Bakhtin in the context of feminism, or vice versa, is to acknowledge that two such bodies of thought cannot run parallel without some attempts at cross-fertilization.

Beyond this broad appeal to Bakhtin's championing of ‘re-accentuation’, which could arguably be appropriate to any significant body of research, there are specific and already much-discussed arguments in favour of keeping an open mind to the possibilities arising from an interaction between Bakhtin and various strands of feminism. Bearing in mind the diversity of what is meant in specific instances by the term ‘feminist’ beyond a broad concern with analysing and attempting to propose means to rectify gender-based oppression, for my purposes here I draw a rough distinction between three areas of work engaging with Bakhtin (indeed a relatively negligible body of work within feminist research as a whole). Firstly, the categories of carnival, double-voicing, heteroglossia, and polyphony have all been variously and extensively deployed in feminist textual analyses aimed at indicating the suppression of other discourses in texts orthodoxically received as ‘monologic’.4 Secondly, and in an overlapping area, the Bakhtin Circle theories of discourse have been used both to challenge post-Lacanian notions of language systems as insuperable and determinist,5 and to criticize various feminist theorists who call for the slate to be ‘wiped clean’ and for new forms of particularly female/feminine language (écriture feminine; parler femme) to challenge or replace patriarchy's discourses.6 Of particular relevance to this paper is what I identify as a third, recent development in Bakhtinian feminist studies which presents Bakhtin as a precursor of the line of twentieth-century ‘iconoclasts of Sameness’ who have indirectly or directly inspired the ‘ethics of sexual difference’ of theorists such as Luce Irigaray.

Maroussia Hadjukowski-Ahmed, the main proponent of this last point of view, argues that while Bakhtin may share an iconoclastic approach to the basic precept of models of identity based on coincidence with any one of Foucault, Todorov, Derrida, or Lyotard, he is the only one of those theorists to allow for manifestations of difference roomy enough for feminist concerns.7 Briefly, this argument rests on an analysis of the values ascribed to otherness or ‘difference’ which understands past (and present) social relations as a series of ‘colonizing’ assumptions of, and impositions upon, otherness. In this schema, an assumption of otherness acts as a sentence of exile from significance. Similarly, an imposition upon otherness is synonymous with an assumption of the insignificance of otherness; it asserts the negligibility of difference through the privileging of similarity, stretched to the point of sameness. In this model of Sameness, what is assumed is not that we are all the same in (biological/physiological) essence, but that we are the same in the contextual detail of our existences. Since the problem facing those who assert the importance of difference is the inevitably ineffable nature of contextual difference, two options arise. The first is to recuperate this wilderness of alterity into the model of Sameness by arguing that its inexhaustibility is uniform, and therefore insignificant; an argument that is made possible only by confusing uniformity with inevitability. So if there is a nod to difference, it is only in order to assert its marginal or negligible status. The second is that chosen by Bakhtin, and by materialist-pragmatist feminists, among others. Since one of the very foundations of the Bakhtin Circle's thought on language is the context-bound, and context-defined, nature of signification, there can be no option but to recognize the differences arising from once-occurrent contexts. His later work on speech genres and dialogistic relationships in texts proffers a bridge between the ineffable context of past, present, future in which each individual is uniquely immersed, and the broader sphere of ‘history’, suggesting a means to account for, describe, understand, and perhaps change the particular circumstances of individual existence. In this light it is not surprising that feminist theorists have drawn on Bakhtin's later work in particular to formulate a ‘feminist dialogics’,8 given the imperative of overcoming the consequence of the postmodern condition, here glossed in representative terms by one feminist researcher, that ‘the fact of difference of experience makes it impossible to bring together perspectives to form a coherent whole […] different experiences can never challenge or mutually inform each other. They simply co-exist’.9 Bakhtin's aesthetics have been seen as offering a way to heal one of the crucial problems of many, if not all, forms of feminism: of how to account for the specifics of individual, socio-historic, material existence within an overarching, inevitably general principle, without effacing or privileging either.

Bakhtin posits his later theory of speech genres as the means by which infinitesimal contextual factors and the wider scope of ‘history’ can be drawn together. But since he avoids defining individual groups themselves, as opposed to the discourses used by various groups, he also avoids the charges of reductive hypostatization levelled at feminists. But such charges themselves may be based on false information, or misunderstandings of what such research, concerned with tracing the constituent features of identity and oppression, is about.10 Pragmatist or materialist theorists now take as their base line the assumption of the constituency of discourse in all analysis, so the argument that biological or essentialist features are needlessly prioritized becomes, in many instances, a straw target.11 Some forms of feminism, with Bakhtin, ask what happens to people not as they appear in the blurry contours of theory, but as real, individual, social bodies in the process of being, theoretically irreducible to a single model. Bakhtin's later work leads us to focus more on the status of otherness, as distinct from the answerable relation between two beings expounded in the early works ‘Art and Answerability’, Toward a Philosophy of the Act and ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’.

Nevertheless even in these early works the two are inextricably intertwined: the idea of a body's ontological singularity is dependent upon the pragmatic recognition of that particularity: indeed, may not even extend beyond that would-be pragmatic recognition. A distinction between ontology and performance/pragmatics lies at the core of Bakhtin's early work, i.e. he emphasizes that existence is located in the interactions of material, corporeal beings. It is acts, events, that produce the body, that reciprocate the body's effects. Clearly Bakhtin does not discuss the sexed body, or even less, sexual orientation, but he stresses that ‘the body’ is an effect of its social, positional interactions. In feminist theory, too, the body has come to be seen as the primary site of identity. The prolific feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz argues that it is the pivot not only of identity, but of the mechanics of oppressive practices.

Grosz identifies problems with both structuralist and humanist approaches to identity which will serve as a starting point for an examination of Bakhtin's views as expressed in the early works. For Grosz the problem of humanism is not only that it takes ‘as its standard of the human form the presumptions, perspectives, frameworks and interests of men’, but also the correlate that otherness is therefore already reducible, marginal, the negative of the positive of positivist thought, or, as she puts it:

When theories of oppression remained embedded in the framework of a universalizing, individualizing humanism […] difference disappeared into categories of the pre-, proto- or non-human. Otherness could enter at best, if at all, as a secondary modification of this basic human nature, a minor detail, and not as a fundamental dimension or defining characteristic.12

Here Grosz conflates two problems or characteristics of a general form of humanism with which Bakhtin was familiar, if not in the Russian context of neo-Kantianism and Formalism. Bakhtin undoubtedly unwittingly presumes ‘the perspectives, frameworks, and interests of men’ in his work on the manifestations of the subject-object/author-hero relationship, but it is imperative to disentangle his early work on socio-historic answerability from the ‘universalizing, individualizing humanism’ with which his theories have some points in common.

A brief exposition of Bakhtin's concept of selfhood based on mutual, and participative, alterity as developed in particular in his early philosophical writings may illustrate these problems. Bakhtin identifies a principle or given of existence in the fact that we all occupy a material, specific spatio-temporal location. Calling this our ‘non-alibi-in-being’ (in a direct challenge to Kant's universalizing imperative), he writes: ‘I occupy a place in once-occurrent Being that is unique and never-repeatable, a place that cannot be taken by anyone else and is impenetrable for anyone else […] The uniqueness or singularity of present-on-hand Being is compellingly obligatory’ (TPA 40). Since we are all ineluctably located in our once-occurrent spatial locations, we depend on the other to draw together those ‘scattered fragments, scraps dangling on the inner sensation of myself’ (‘AH’ [‘Author and Hero’] 109) into a coherent whole within a background of objects, time, place, and events to which only the other can have access. The classical, value-bestowing primacy of self-definition through self-vision is turned on its head; the Other possesses the privilege of ‘excess of seeing’ in relation to the self, setting up the threat of being held epistemological hostage to the other. This danger recedes as soon as we recognize another given of Bakhtin's thought: the vital role played by cognition. Since, as Ken Hirschkop argues, the conceptual is our necessary access to the real,13 this potential centrism or pluralism is always, potentially, undone. Bakhtin writes that:

Cognition surmounts this concrete outsideness of me myself and the outsideness-for-me of all other human beings […] For cognition, there is no absolutely inconvertible relationship of I and all others; for cognition, ‘I and the other’ constitute a relationship that is relative and convertible, since the cognitive subjectum as such does not occupy any determinate, concrete place in being.

(‘AH’ 105-106)

Before Bakhtin comes to the later conclusion that we all are in the position of speaking for the Other, but without that entailing universalizing assumptions of and about otherness, he makes the point that being is cognition, conceptualization, representation. But Bakhtin is at pains to clarify the fact that different forms of representation are the product of differently cognized relationships between self and other. In ‘Author and Hero’ he outlines in detail the effects of these varying relationships in literary works by using a typology of author-hero relationships. A scale of ‘dialogic’ practice is put into play: aesthetic activity proper is posited as the highest form of ethical practice, a model of ethics.

The act of cognition, or speculation on the literally inaccessible inner domain of the Other is itself only a part of the whole that for Bakhtin constitutes ‘aesthetic activity’, but it is this inner domain that in part makes us non-reducible individuals. In ‘Author and Hero’ he gives an admittedly extreme, but representative, example of the stages of an ‘ethical/aesthetic’ approach to the other:

Let us say that there is a human being before me who is suffering […] The first step in aesthetic activity is my projecting myself into him and experiencing my life from within him. I must experience—come to see and know—what he experiences; I must put myself in his place and coincide with him, as it were. […] During the time I project myself into him, I must detach myself from the independent significance of all those features that are merely transgredient to his consciousness. […] My projection of myself onto him must be followed by a return to my own place […] for only from this place can the material derived from my projecting myself into the other be rendered meaningful ethically, cognitively, or aesthetically. […] Aesthetic activity proper actually begins at the point when we return into ourselves.

(‘AH’ 107-108)

Peter Hitchcock has summed up the end-point given here of ‘aesthetic activity proper’ as ‘the I/Other beyond I or Other as discrete positions, the moment of a collective subjectivity’,14 an ideal state in which the ‘excess’ by which the other has priority is not relinquished, but is put to aesthetic use. However these ‘stages’, even the primary movement of ‘sympathetic co-experiencing’, are not guaranteed but exist as a choice, and not necessarily one of liberal ‘free choice’, on a scale of practice. As early as Toward a Philosophy of the Act Bakhtin emphasizes that various possible permutations of cognition can efface such thinking altogether, that such thinking does not inevitably hold sway over all others. For if, in common with many feminists, Bakhtin links subjectivity with embodiment, he is nonetheless aware of the perils such a principle allows:

Of course, this fact [of the non-alibi-in-being] may give rise to a rift, it may be impoverished: I can ignore my self-activity and live by my passivity alone. I can try to prove my alibi in Being, I can pretend to be someone I am not. I can abdicate from my obligative (ought-to-be) uniqueness.

(TPA 42)

Indeed, not only is the first principle of the non-alibi-in-being itself anti-dialogical, the next ‘stages’ of the cognition of experience are themselves always susceptible of a potentially infinite set of variations, only some of which would fall within the boundaries of ‘participative’ or ‘dialogical’ thinking/representation. More important than the first principle of our inevitable embodiedness is the task, or the struggle to cognize that relationship aesthetically, for ‘aesthetic empathizing into the participant of an event is not yet the attainment of a full comprehension of the event. Even if I know a given person thoroughly, and I also know myself, I still have to grasp the truth of our interrelationship, the truth of the unitary and unique event which links us and in which we are participants’ (TPA 17). Bakhtin spends a great deal of time emphasizing that the very movement of consciousness which expresses the emotional-volitional tone of the viewer/author toward the Other is not passive: it takes an immense effort to be true to this dialogic understanding of existence. Indeed Bakhtin changes the Russian word for unity—edinstvo (which perhaps implies too much of a wholeness seen from a transcendent position outside an object) to the word vernost': ‘faithfulness’, or even ‘loyalty’. With the struggle of aesthetic (dialogic) interaction encouraged by Bakhtin comes the existence, the possibility, even the likelihood of failure. Since all of us claim the right to subjecthood, interaction is bound, almost inevitably, to be conflictual, or at least frictional. Bakhtin is all too aware of the fact that the power-inscribed nature of the principle of self-other relations can lead to various sorts of ethical, and therefore, aesthetic failures.

It may be problematic to assume a coincidence both between Toward a Philosophy of the Act and ‘Author and Hero’, and between the creative act and existence per se, but if anything Bakhtin's detailed elaboration of relationships between individuals in particular roles in ‘Author and Hero’ is useful for demonstrating, as Peter Hitchcock writes, how Bakhtin's ‘early conception of exotopy […] is snarled in the more conventional drawbacks of Western philosophy’.15 Several questions arise from the focus on the ethical dependence of the subject on the Other in Bakhtin's early writings. This microcosmic subject-other relation, although surrounded by a sketchy contextual scaffolding (the sky above, the trees around), has a certain synchronic flavour to it. Indeed, Bakhtin's account of the given of material existence not only lends itself to, but demands, an extrapolation into a general plane. It is a short step from such a generalization to induce the bugbear of the transcendental subject, of a certain human given, or fact (and feminists have argued, rightly, that for human here read male masquerading as neutral). But while Bakhtin indisputably worked from a tradition which assumed a transcendent subject, and while he clearly believes there is something we have in common which defines us as ‘human’, he transfers that ghostly, ephemeral essence to the corporeal, social dimension, and bestows upon it several characteristics that rescue it from a sneaking introduction of Grosz's ‘framework of a universalizing, individualizing humanism’, which in fact bar us from taking that tempting step to generalizations about what we all have in common.16

Bakhtin emphasizes that to be human is to be a material being located in time and space; to be dependent on others for a coherent view of oneself; to have a view of oneself as never finalized, and non-coincident with ‘ideal images’; and to reciprocate that relation to others, who themselves are all subjects of the same paradigm. He suggests a means of analysing both the overt and more importantly the hidden limitations on our being, since he suggests that being is social, and social parameters are mutable. The picture of the subject we get is not the straw man (emphatically a man) of transcendentalism, but that of a living being in time and space, a subject with constantly fluctuating horizons and porous membranes, a subject who is capable of a contingent coherence of identity, but not of the finished polish of an impermeable, unaltering unit. The material being is not located in the body alone as a sort of essence in itself, but is only realized (in both senses of the word) through discursive representation. Like the novel later, Bakhtin encourages a view of the body as a mediated, porous entity, realized not in or by itself, but through the process of action, of being. It is the fact of the inevitably process-defined nature of existence which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to extrapolate a fixed systematizing model of existence from the early works.

But the formulation of ‘feminist dialogics’ has been at the price of collapsing the non-alibi-in-being into a loose ‘dialogic principle’, which ignores the problematic implications of Bakhtin's baggy humanism for ease of feminist recuperation. Without an acknowledgment of this, ‘feminist dialogics’ cannot proceed in its self-appointed task of ‘taking on rhetorical or dialogic authority […] that would reinvent a shared ethics within intersecting public and private worlds’.17 It cannot be enough to acknowledge that we share a uniting, although always already mediated, ontological principle of uniqueness and irreducibility in time and space: the ‘non-alibi-in-being’, but neither can this be entirely ignored, since it is the basis of Bakhtin's later theories of dialogism. This paradox seems once again to introduce a binary divide which leaves, in the best tradition of Western philosophy, no room for the middle ground. In order to be able to escape this double bind there must be a way of introducing larger classificatory groupings of experience which are nevertheless open to negotiation and to the effects of fluctuating individual experience. As far as feminists are concerned, as Clive Thomson has pointed out, the strategy of answerability is ineffective if it remains at an individual level; the whole process must be transferred to a collective level, but not a universal or transcendent plane.18 Similarly, the distinction between dialectical consensus and dialogism is important for feminists for whom focus on consensus effaces the possible imbalances of power by which it is brought about. Bakhtin therefore permits a re-evaluation of the interrelationship which is constituted by that power, rather than the teleological end product. In other words, Bakhtin helps us to see that to agree to something may be just as much a product of one's socio-historic locatedness as it is a measure of one's willing acquiescence to someone else's point of view, and that the endless possible manifestations of different readings of otherness can entail, and do generate, in actuality, acts of oppression with which feminists are so concerned.

These provisos aside, what links Bakhtin and feminist theories is the importance placed on the ineluctable foundation of subjecthood as embodied, and in which an individuality inheres in a state of flux. In this sense Bakhtin's work sits neatly with the view taken up by so many French feminist philosophers in particular, insofar as self-other relations are based on a differentiated parity, and not on a model of either sameness or endless difference.


One of the most prolific feminists to go beyond poststructuralist notions of the self is Luce Irigaray. A brief discussion of Irigaray's work may demonstrate some of the problems with extending Bakhtin's view of the body as different, to a view of the body as sexually differentiated. Irigaray attacks neutralization of sexual difference, whereby Western philosophy generally has constructed the difference between the sexes as a thinly-veiled mirror image of a universal male (what she calls the repetition of the Selfsame), specifically writing out autonomous female desire. Asserting that it is specifically upon sexual difference that an ‘ethics of alterity’ must be based, much of her work has been in the form of deconstructions of Western philosophical texts to reveal elements of female sexuality hidden within. Sexual difference, she has said, is the issue of our age.19 As a result she proposes an alternative ‘ethics of alterity’, where the Other is irreducible to the self, and resists oppositional/complementary definitions of the relationship between self and Other. Like Bakhtin's non-alibi, the self/Other relationship is conceived in material, corporeal terms, with the important distinction that Irigaray sites as fundamental an unacknowledged sexual difference: individuals are (or should be) specifically differentiated by maleness or femaleness, and not by gendered attributes of that body; i.e. not what we describe as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ features or behaviours.

Irigaray seems to echo Bakhtin when she reworks Descartes's first element of wonder as the basis for her alternative ethics:

This passion has no opposite or contradiction and exists always as though for the first time. Thus man and woman, woman and man are always meeting as though for the first time because they cannot be substituted for the other. I will never be in a man's place, never will a man be in mine. Whatever identifications are possible, one will never exactly occupy the place of the other—they are irreducible one to the other. […] Who or what the other is, I never know. But the other who is forever unknowable is the other who differs from me sexually. This feeling of surprise, astonishment, and wonder ought to be returned to its locus: that of sexual difference.20

This moment of wonder sets up a paradigm of encounter with others as an encounter which, paradoxically, asserts difference/distance (the Other is irreducibly Other) at the same time as it implies a fascination with/attraction towards the Other. This attraction/repulsion paradigm has been constructed from the Medusa-figure onwards as a misogynist relationship of power, where the Other (female) has a mesmeric power over the (male) subject, causing paralysis and even literal petrifaction.21 Irigaray's return to Descartes's notion undoes this in that the encounter is, in her words, fecund: instead of fear and domination we get interrelation. She argues that the productivity of the sparks flying off from this state of being has in our culture been channelled into restrictive areas. One such of these is the figure of the child, which has been, she argues, troped as symbol of the synthesis between male and female: particularly since the (pre-Freudian) child until teenage years has largely been figured as androgynous, or sexless. We divert our attention from the moment of perfect union into figures which are presented as its products (God, child). These figures substitute for the process of wonder which is generated by an awareness of sexual difference: a re-awareness of the process of sexual difference which is present at every moment of the encounter with the Other is therefore necessary. The effects of this re-alignment of thought would be fecund in that they would extend beyond the personal into, in Irigaray's words, ‘the production of a new age of thought, art, poetry, and language: the creation of a new poetics’.22 The mechanics of this encounter are to be brought about through the tactile: the specular tradition, which indeed problematizes Bakhtin's early works,23 reduces ‘the perpetual unfolding and becoming of the living being’. The caress, in Irigaray's terms, ‘seeks out […] that which cannot be anticipated because it is other. The unforeseeable nature of contact with otherness, beyond its own limits’.24 Irigaray therefore goes beyond assessments of the effects of ignoring difference to speculate explicitly upon the consequences of recognition of particular features which mark out otherness.

Yet some problems with Irigaray's project can be identified in the light of Bakhtin's work. Firstly, in the name of difference she advocates a form of sameness, or union, which effaces all these troubling, ‘messy’ non-coincidences by which we live. For Irigaray the recognition of sexual difference is only half of the story: it is the means by which a synthesis of body and soul is brought about. She writes, for instance: ‘A sexual or carnal ethics would require that both angel and body must be found together. […] This is a world that must be created or re-created so that man and woman may once again or at last live together, meet, and sometimes inhabit the same place’.25 Here Irigaray reveals that the ultimate aim of her ethics of sexual difference is something which seems to be curiously ill at ease with the rest of her agenda: ‘a remaking of immanence and transcendence’ in the here and now.26 Unlike Bakhtin her understanding of difference is dialectical, in that she focuses on the products of the encounter with the Other, rather than on the event as process.

Secondly, Irigaray offers no way out of this principle of dependence on the Other. Underlying Irigaray's ethics of sexual difference is the work of Levinas, for whom, as Elizabeth Grosz writes, ‘the other is the irreducible and non-reciprocal material support of the subject’.27 Levinas uses a metaphor of a hostage to demonstrate the absolute reliance of the subject on the Other, and the subject's utter responsibility for the Other's behaviour, even when that behaviour is beyond their control. As Grosz suggests, Irigaray's ethics ‘requires recognition of alterity, an acceptance of the alterity of each to the other, an acceptance of the externality and indeed priority of the other for the subject’.28 In contrast to this, another feminist stance is that argued by Joan Copjec, who writes, ‘it is only when the sovereign incalculability of the subject is acknowledged that perceptions of difference will no longer nourish demands for the surrender of difference to processes of “homogenization”, “purification”, or any of the other crimes against otherness’.29 Bakhtin's work at once embraces the ‘incalculability’ of the subject while interrogating the notion of ‘sovereignty’ by implying the notion of dependence—although not absolute—upon others for our very existence as ineluctably social beings, falling not synthetically between the two, but by emphasizing the importance of cognition. If Irigaray can enrich Bakhtin's concept of otherness by introducing the stratum of sexual difference, Bakhtin offers Irigaray, through the principle of ethical (aesthetic) cognition, an additional means for potentially overcoming that centrism which she locates in the Western tradition of the visual, and which she combats by focusing on other senses for elaborating an expression of female sexuality.

Perhaps the most crucial point to be considered is Irigaray's assertion that all difference can be subsumed under two categories of sex-based characteristics. Since for Irigaray the marker of effectiveness is reproduction (of children as well as texts) perhaps we can understand why she has been accused of a biological determinism. Irigaray's stance may be explicable if we view it as strategic, and descriptive of a social situation (and hence not determinist/essentialist): yet her vision is also undoubtedly prescriptive. The ethics of sexual difference she advocates models itself as a heterosexual version of Plato's republic.30 Instead of an alchemic transformation of reality which comes about as a result of an encounter between a young man and an older one, leading to the attainment of what she calls ‘a sensible transcendental’, this now takes place in the heterosexual encounter. This begs the question of a possible heterocentric essentialism in her work, for, while criticizing the drive to synthesis in Western philosophy which has toppled over into a model of the selfsame, and in asserting sexual difference as the ultimate foundation of identity, Irigaray measures the encounter of wonder by an index of productivity, in which the sexual act between men and women is valorized as it ‘gives the seed of life and eternity’.31 While this rewrites the excluded and denied feminine back into the equation, it also produces an equation based on a surprisingly reductive understanding of difference as the difference between men and women. There seems to be a certain aporia of those who claim to be pushing back the frontiers of ‘an ethics of sexual difference’, and yet who still see homosexual relations as a threat to the parameters of alterity (Irigaray writes, for instance, in her essay ‘Love of Self’ that ‘one of the dangers of love between women is the confusion in their identities, the lack of respect for or perception of differences’).32 So long as alterity is understood as marked ultimately by gender, then there will be no escaping the abstracted conflation of homosexuality with androgyny made by Irigaray, leading her to conclude that anything other than a tactical advocation of a ‘homosexual’ economy sounds the death knell of the human race.33

Bakhtin's view of difference as a difference which bears the imprint of myriad contextual factors can be said to permit, if not exactly encourage, consideration of other factors in the constitution of identity. It is a truism for Bakhtin that we are all different: by extending the early work on the ‘non-alibi-in-being’ to a spectrum of ‘participative/dialogic’ interactions he encourages us to consider the consequences of our difference. In examining cultural products and revealing their male-centred bias, Irigaray is doing just that. But in setting up sexual difference as not only the issue of our age, but also as the answer to our age, as an unaltering fact which must needs be asserted, Irigaray conflates the mechanics of oppression with the solution. Sexual difference is undoubtedly one social and pragmatic distinction by which various forms of oppression are fuelled, and on which attempts to subvert those practices must be founded, but it may also be an ontological nonsense that cannot support metaphysical prescription. Rather than advocate a replacement of the view that sex or gender are significant signifiers of identity in our time and culture, an extension of Bakhtin's work may be carried out to remind us that identity is made up of an infinite number of strata. For any analysis to take place these must be classified generically, but Irigaray's subtle and extensive work on sexual difference teeters on the brink of privileging markers of sex as the ultimate signifiers of alterity, rather than allowing, as Bakhtin might perhaps, self-other relations to be taken as represented in a multiplicity of ways, with varying effects.

Some concluding points about feminist research and Bakhtin. Feminist Bakhtinians have tended to privilege the dialogical practice (or dialogism itself) over the principle of existence outlined in the early works, often without accounting for the fact that Bakhtin's ‘ecstatic’ model recognizes that cognized manifestations (i.e. transformations) of our shared embodiedness (in discourse, writing) are always susceptible of a distortion of this ideal model. Secondly, this has been accompanied by a creeping distortion of the old feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’, so that an oppositional hierarchy of textual representation versus ‘life’ is set up. This ‘the personal becomes political’ model carries Bakhtin's early injunction that ‘an analysis of [the world of aesthetic seeing] should help us come closer to an understanding of the architectonic structure of the actual world-as-event’ (TPA 61) to an extreme, unwittingly pointing out Bakhtin's own inconsistent hierarchizing of the two ‘spheres’. Taken with the later concept of ‘the dialogic consciousness’, a non-evolutionary/progressive model of the two as distinct, yet imbricated spheres on the same level must be reasserted in acknowledgment of the difficulty of achieving dialogism given the in-built disparity of the self-other relationship. Most importantly for feminist theory the question arises of whether a ‘dialogics’ of living might not in fact be detrimental to various forms of political praxis.

Since feminism's common concern is social transformation of widespread, gender-based injustices, it may be that the attraction of dialogism suits a certain stage of feminism, as the elision of different specific experience has been, and continues to be, an intractable problem of feminist research. ‘Feminist dialogics’ responds to this problem in providing the opportunity to supplement the common denominator of gender with race, class, and sexuality, and more, so that ‘we are thinking of Hispanics, lesbians and gay men, African and Native Americans, and other marginalized peoples whose voices have been and, unfortunately, continue to be, devalued and silenced’.34 Nevertheless this runs the risk of subsuming all different situational values of the individuals within those groups under a general category of ‘the marginalized’, and may also gloss over the positive aspects of having a coherent, assimilated identity. A liberal pluralism falls short of accounting for the specific, socio-historic need for a coherence of definition which many groups still rightly have recourse to, resisting a diversity of definition which could lead to oppressive assimilation. In the same way that Michael Holquist has noted that ‘the dark side of double-voiced discourse is duplicity’, the dark side of dialogism may be a politically damaging fragmentation.

Bakhtin's insistence on the unfragmented, socio-historic, material self nevertheless enriches feminist theories which have become trapped in views of language systems which ultimately deny the subject any sort of autonomy, or simply deny the subject. Bakhtin's views allow an analysis of the mechanics of specific oppressions, coupled with an awareness of the possibility of altering those oppressive tactics. Since difference is registered in infinitely variable ways, the need still to group differences under general categories such as gender/sexual difference, is understandable. Bakhtin offers feminism a theory of subjectivity which allows autonomy; an autonomy which is not ‘made in heaven’, but which is rather always in a process of negotiation through an aesthetic cognition of the other's inner and outer specificity, repeated endlessly in the world and history, in existence, and transformed and potentially heightened in artistic creation.


  1. ‘Anketa “DKKh”: Professor Prinstonskogo universiteta (SShA) K. Emerson otvechaet na voprosy redaktsii’ [The ‘D.K.Kh.’ Questionnaire: Professor Caryl Emerson of Princeton University (USA) Replies to Questions from the Editorial Board], Dialog. Karnaval. Khronotop, 2 (1994), p. 7.

  2. For a thinker so attentive to the existence of ‘the other’, Bakhtin's silence on gender may seem both surprising and disappointing, but cannot preclude speculative research. For an example of research that deals directly with Bakhtin's relationships with women, see Maroussia Hadjukowski-Ahmed, ‘Bakhtin and Feminism: Two Solitudes?’, in Critical Studies 2.1-2 (1990) (Mikhail Bakhtin and the Epistemology of Discourse), pp. 153-63. Hadjukowski-Ahmed's point about Katerina Clark's and Michael Holquist's gradual linguistically-produced effacement of Elena Nikolaevna Bakhtina in their biography Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) would be even more pertinent to the other eminent Western biography: in Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson compound the sense of the invisibility of this figure in Bakhtin's life by referring to her in both index and text exclusively as either ‘B's wife’ or ‘his wife’. Wayne C. Booth, ‘Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism’, in Critical Inquiry, 9.1 (1982), pp. 45-76, was the earliest example of the line of argument which seeks to demonstrate a detrimental evasion of the subject in general terms in Bakhtin's work.

  3. See A. V. Bosenko, ‘Vlast’ vremeni, ili ostav'te Bakhtina v pokoe’ [The Power of Time, or Leave Bakhtin in Peace], in M. M. Bakhtin i perspektivy gumanitarnykh nauk: materialy nauchnoi konferentsii (Moskva, RGGU, 1-3 fevralia 1993 goda) (Vitebsk, 1994), pp. 83-85.

  4. See, for instance, the following collections: Dale M. Bauer and Susan Jaret McKinstry (eds.), Feminism, Bakhtin and the Dialogic (SUNY Series in Feminist Criticism, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991); Karen Hohne and Helen Wussow (eds.), A Dialogue of Voices: Feminist Literary Theory and Bakhtin (London; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

  5. See Corinne Chénier, ‘Language, Gender, Bakhtin, and Feminism’ [abstract], in Mijail Baxtin: Sexto Encuentro Internacional Mijail Baxtin: Sinopsis de Ponencias (Mexico: Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, 1993), unpaginated; and Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz, ‘Bakhtin, Discourse and Feminist Theories’, in Critical Studies 1.2 (1989) (The Bakhtin Circle Today), pp. 121-39.

  6. See Lisa Gasbarrone, ‘“The Locus for the Other”: Cixous, Bakhtin and Women's Writing’, in A Dialogue of Voices, pp. 1-19. Gasbarrone argues that Bakhtin demystifies the idea of language as ‘unitary and timeless, exclusive and transcendent’, while Cixous replaces the myth of seamlessness supporting patriarchal language with another, ‘feminine’, monolithic language, thereby establishing its own centre, and hence, its own excluded zones.

  7. Maroussia Hadjukowksi-Ahmed, ‘Ethique de l'altérité, éthique de la différence sexuelle: Bakhtine et les théories féministes’, in Discours social/Social Discourse, 3.1-2 (1990) (Bakhtin and Otherness), pp. 251-70.

  8. The term was brought to the fore in Dale M. Bauer and Susan Jaret McKinstry's ‘Introduction’ to Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 1-6, and used throughout the collection (see, for instance, Diane Price Herndl, ‘The Dilemmas of a Feminine Dialogic’, pp. 7-24).

  9. Oshadi Mangena, ‘Against Fragmentation: The Need for Holism’, in Kathleen Lennon and Margaret Whitford (eds.), Knowing the Difference: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology (London and New York, 1994), p. 281.

  10. The literature is extensive, but see, for instance, Nancy Fraser, ‘The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for Feminist Politics’, in Nancy Fraser and Sandra Lee Barsky (eds.), Revaluing French Feminism: Critical Essays on Difference, Agency and Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 177-91, for a useful analysis of feminist research in this area.

  11. There are of course exceptions to this. See Hélène Cixous, and, as my own argument emphasizes, Luce Irigaray.

  12. Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Experimental Desire: Rethinking Queer Subjectivity’, in Joan Copjec (ed.), Supposing the Subject (London and New York: Verso, 1994), p. 137.

  13. Ken Hirschkop, ‘On Value and Responsibility’, in Critical Studies, 2.1-2 (1990) (Mikhail Bakhtin and the Epistemology of Discourse), pp. 13-27.

  14. Peter Hitchcock, ‘Exotopy and Feminist Critique’, in Critical Studies, 3.2-4.1-2 (1993) (Bakhtin: Carnival and Other Subjects), p. 207.

  15. Hitchcock, ‘Exotopy and Feminist Critique’, pp. 203-204.

  16. See Etienne Balibar, ‘Subjection and Subjectivation’, in Joan Copjec (ed.), Supposing the Subject, pp. 1-15. Balibar identifies a problem with Western philosophy's use of the term ‘subject’ in general as arising from two distinct sources. He writes that before Kant's introduction of the term ‘subject’ (Subjekt) to mean ‘that universal aspect of human consciousness and conscience […] which provides any philosophy with its foundation and measure’ (pp. 4-5), the Aristotelian term subjectum was current. Subjectum as Balibar describes it to signify ‘an individual bearer of the formal properties of “the substance”’ (p. 6) is also a term that Bakhtin uses at several points in TPA, perhaps as a deliberate reminder of the distance between his social/humanist and Kant's universal/humanist ‘subject’. Balibar goes on to say that ‘subject’ is itself a word-play arising from translations of subjectum (subject of) and subjectus (subject to) (p. 8), which may also be used to reflect upon Bakhtin's ‘subject’ who is both ‘sovereign’ and ‘citizen’.

  17. Bauer and McKinstry, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-2.

  18. Clive Thomson, ‘Bakhtin and Feminist Projects: Judith Butler's “Gender Trouble”’, in Critical Studies, 3.2-4.1-2 (1993) (Bakhtin: Carnival and Other Subjects), p. 227.

  19. Luce Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, in An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (London: The Athlone Press, 1993), p. 5.

  20. Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, pp. 12-13.

  21. My thanks to David Miller for this suggestion.

  22. Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, p 5.

  23. See Ann Jefferson, ‘Bodymatters: Self and Other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes’, in Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (eds.), Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 152-77.

  24. Irigaray, ‘The Fecundity of the Caress’, in An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p. 211.

  25. Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, p. 17.

  26. Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, p. 18.

  27. Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (Kristeva, Irigaray, le Doeuff) (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989), p. 143.

  28. Grosz, Sexual Subversions, p. 176.

  29. Joan Copjec, ‘Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason’, in Supposing the Subject, p. 21.

  30. Irigaray, ‘Sorcerer Love’, in An Ethics of Sexual Difference, pp. 21-33.

  31. Irigaray, ‘Sexual Difference’, p. 14.

  32. Irigaray, ‘Love of Self’, in An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p. 63.

  33. Irigaray, Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. Alison Martin (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). This tendency in both feminist and Bakhtin studies to perpetuate the silence shrouding what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet (London: Penguin Books, 1994), has called ‘the open secret’, ‘in a culture where same-sex desire is still structured by its distinctive public/private status, at once marginal and central’ (p. 22), forces a ‘marriage of convenience’ at the unlikeliest of junctures, problematizing both the celebration of dialogistic respect for, and engagement with, otherness in Bakhtin studies, and claims of feminist theorists of self/other relations to be pushing back ethical, political, and theoretical frontiers with ‘an ethics of sexual difference’. It is worth noting, incidentally, that some Western contributors who mentioned gay and lesbian studies and/or queer theory in their papers at the Seventh International Bakhtin Conference (Moscow State Pedagogical University, July 1995) were surprised to find that something was lost in the simultaneous translation: namely, the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’. Although there is no received equivalent of ‘lesbian and gay studies’ in Russia, a paraphrase or literal translation is possible.

  34. Hohne and Wussow, ‘Introduction’, in A Dialogue of Voices: Feminist Literary Theory and Bakhtin, pp. xi-xii.

Anthony Wall (essay date summer-fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Wall, Anthony. “A Broken Thinker.” South Atlantic Quarterly 97, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall, 1998): 669-98.

[In the following essay, Wall argues that Bakhtin is a fundamentally fragmentary thinker and that those who attempt to reconstruct his lost thought from his fragments both misread Bakhtin and misunderstand the process of cultural memory.]

Or again, what harm would it have done us to have remained uncreated?

—Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe

Bakhtin is a broken thinker and the pieces of his thought are strewn in virtually every direction. It is ironic that as the early writings are becoming more widely known—texts that are, without exception, fragments of varying scope and length—interpretations are being proposed that purport to give the entire picture of Bakhtin or to read these fragments through the prism of his later works. Although his oeuvre begins in fragments rather than wholes, readers are often tempted to read such fragments in a Romantic framework, as if each one were a tiny mirror, a miniature reproduction, of a greater and mysterious whole. “To show that the totality is present as such in every part, and that the whole is not simply the sum but the co-presence of all the parts in terms of the co-presence of the whole in itself (since the whole is also the detachment or the closing off of the part)—this is the essential necessity that flows from the individuality of the fragment.”1

What is fascinating, but no less problematic, when dealing with Bakhtin as a thinker and as a writer is that in his case there never is a whole, only broken pieces. For us, then, the whole is not a set, an eternally subsisting totality, of potentially replaceable parts. Many modern thinkers who address the problem of the fragmented life of the modern individual (e.g., Popper debating Lukács) seem to revert to this desire for a totality, which assumes various guises.2 In terms of the part/whole relationship in Bakhtin's writing, I would not advocate a logic of stockpiling and accrual nor plead for the postmodern Western subject's right to pick and choose, wherever he likes, amongst the fragmentary spoils he has forcefully “acquired” in accordance with an illogical and “indifferent” set of consumer needs.3 I would warn, rather, against the logic of “replacement parts,”4 which, far from upholding the value of the fragment as a possible site of resistance to centripetal discursive forces, denies that fragment's worth by making it subordinate to something more important and—of course—more lasting. Contrary to these schemes of thought, Bakhtin's fragmentary thinking is not about replaceable parts. “To affirm definitively the fact of my unique and irreplaceable participation in Being is to enter Being precisely where it does not coincide with itself: to enter the ongoing event of Being.”5

In speaking of the fundamentally fragmentary nature of Bakhtin's thinking, however, let us not fall into the simplistic trap of opposing fragments as an image of relativism to notions of unity, but rather take to heart Michael Gardiner's warning against too enthusiastically adopting an overly individualistic “ethics of dialogism.”6 The fragment should be read not as a textual equivalent to the autonomous social individual (“as a self-enclosed and impervious fragment”7) but as a figure for the difficult relationships that exist on the edges of any human individuality. The question of the fragment's polyvalent edges is integral to Bakhtin's prosaics, which seeks to apprehend the varied means of the individual's entering into relationships of all sorts with concrete and abstract others.

Beginning with the early incomplete, fragmentary essays that led Bakhtin's “career” into several “false starts,” one is tempted to read beyond the surface content/sense of his thoughts to their unspoken but implicit fascination with the problematic relationship between parts and wholes. That these fragmentary essays, which are irreducibly incomplete, should evince a noticeable fascination with wholeness may be no accident on the part of a thinker whose writing so often contradicted itself and was wont to retell in a different light that which had already been told. While it is all too easy to write off the fragmentary nature of many early works as mere accidents in an otherwise carefully thought out philosophical program, the fact remains that Bakhtin completed few of his works and that the essays we are now reading from early in his career—those keen on wholeness and unity—are, significantly, the ones most hopelessly bereft of the very characteristics of which they dream. “This act is truly real (it participates in once-occurrent Being-as-event) only in its entirety. Only this whole act is alive, exists fully and inescapably—comes to be, is accomplished.”8

The difficulties associated with finding the appropriate mode for reading Bakhtin, the best tack for dealing with his fragmentary beginnings, are complicated by the incredible history of his works' editing. Not only can we discern numerous reading strategies whose principal aim is to create wholeness where there are fragments, but Bakhtin's editors have been especially guilty of “creating” seemingly unified texts out of a long series of notes or several disjointed papers. The essay entitled Toward a Philosophy of the Act is not the only example of such an editorial feat, as can be witnessed by the fact that what was published in Russian in 1986 as a single essay has been divided by Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist between two different books, the small volume of the same title and the “Supplementary Section” appended to “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” in Art and Answerability,9 although, according to the essay's Russian editor, S. G. Bocharov, it actually formed part of a now lost preceding section of this essay. Art and Answerability is itself an example of a tentatively reconstituted whole, given Holquist's insistence on the essays therein as “part of a great untitled work Bakhtin never finished, a project we have called ‘The Architectonics of Answerability’ for reasons internal to the remaining fragments.”10 As always with Bakhtin, there are apparently many other fragments that his editors do not permit us to see or that have simply disappeared. Yet another, more interesting example is a work whose wholeness was not questioned until very recently; according to some oral accounts, the chronotope essay only became one when Bakhtin's editors began to work on it.

There are some obvious problems, therefore, in Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson's summary of Toward a Philosophy of the Act in their introduction to Rethinking Bakhtin, where the “third part” of the fragment (i.e., the “Supplementary Section” in Art and Answerability) is read as belonging to one and the same work, albeit with some skeptical questioning of the essay's treatment by “Soviet editors” such as Bocharov.11 Furthermore, as Morson and Emerson go on to say, they do not see the sense of the “moments” in Toward a Philosophy of the Act, for on their reading the constituent moment becomes a mere “aspect” and the inherently chronotopic nature of the young Bakhtin's essay, which purports to think abstractly through the utterly individual nature of the singular event, loses its dynamic and contradictory dimension. In their reading of the “two-faced Janus,” they explicitly seek to eliminate everything theoretical, thereby eliminating one fundamental side of the “head,” claiming that all such doubling splits are inherently “dangerous.”12 What Bakhtin means to show throughout his fragment, however, is the necessity of preserving at least two realms:

It is only the once-occurrent event of Being in the process of actualization that can constitute this unique unity; all that which is theoretical or aesthetic must be determined as a constituent moment in the once-occurrent event of Being, although no longer, of course, in theoretical or aesthetic terms. An act must acquire a single unitary plane to be able to reflect itself in both directions—in its sense or meaning and in its being; it must acquire the unity of two-sided answerability—both for its content (special answerability) and for its Being (moral answerability).13

My own approach to this text here will be to consider it part of Bakhtin's irreducibly fragmented “beginnings.” That he should have begun with fragments raises a question about the very conceiving of new and fresh beginnings within and beyond the discursive realm of cultural acts (a problem that would be explored by Michel Foucault14). But the undeniable presence of fragments from the very start also raises a question about the advisability of drawing any conclusions as to where Bakhtin was actually headed when he began to write in his early twenties. These initial fragments point to a curious indirectedness in his thinking, a term we can use to stress the impossibility of predicting on the basis of any given fragment where the thoughts expressed within it would actually lead. It is important to develop an anti-essentialist stance toward Bakhtin's work, in my view, in order to counter attempts to treat one or another of his early texts as if it contained all the parts that were missing when we previously read Bakhtin's later works. Such attempts yield, at best, reductive and stagnating readings, for they posit a fixed and immutable essence in Bakhtin's early thought that could only have developed with maturity. At their worst, they partake of a dehumanizing tendency to deny a given thinker the right to change, even to contradict himself, and they thus construe individuality in such a way as to claim an understanding of the whole from a single part. As Alfred Arteaga clearly shows, the basis of any such attitude toward another human being is the objectifying use of antithesis and synecdoche: “The rhetoric of antithesis restricts heterogeneity to the dominant Self, and the synecdoche acts to disallow individuation to the Other. To know one is to know all.”15

Instead of papering over Bakhtin's fragmentary beginnings, it is perhaps time to think of what they might mean for us, his readers, to be faced with so many unfinished pieces, with what the young Bakhtin refers to as Janus-like signs: “An act of our activity, of our actual experiencing, is like a two-faced Janus.”16 The fragment can be seen as either a curious piece of something else or as part of a nonexistent whole. The indirectedness of Bakhtin's thinking seems to indicate the necessity of imagining, from any given piece, several simultaneously possible routes: “It is as if rays of light radiate from my uniqueness and, passing through time, they confirm historical mankind, they permeate with the light of value all possible time and temporality itself as such, for I myself actually partake in temporality.”17 The fragment seems to come from several different paths at once and to lead simultaneously in several different directions. The parts and pieces of Bakhtin's thinking are not simply details of a larger but temporarily indiscernible whole. There is no encyclopedic vision within his framework that would simulate totality in an incredible proliferation of detail or a systemic attachment to everything that seems peripheral.18 If Bakhtin's thought processes are to be examined along their edges, then these must be recognized as the edges of fragments, not of global concepts. If we are to respect the idea of “becoming” so crucial to Bakhtin's thought, if we are to understand meaning as stratified and multilinear, and, finally, if we are to construe his vision in terms of a prosaics of the world and its inhabitants, we need to consider most carefully the role that fragmentary texts play in Bakhtin's understanding of interpersonal behavior.

Speaking of “indirectedness” enables us to avoid the temptation to construe Bakhtin's fragmentary thinking in terms of staunchly opposed reflections on the difficulty of the social individual, on the one hand, and the impossibility of abstractions, on the other. Unfortunately, such an opposition seems to predominate in the commentary on Toward a Philosophy of the Act, as in this statement, for example: “Hostility to all forms of ‘theoretism’ … was one constant in Bakhtin's long career.”19 This is surely misleading in relation to a text which explicitly states that “an indifferent or hostile reaction is always a reaction that impoverishes and decomposes its object.”20 My own reading of Toward a Philosophy of the Act here proposes neither that it “consists of a long attack on a style of thought Bakhtin calls ‘theoretism’” nor that it exhibits a “fundamental dislike of systems,”21 stressing instead the dynamic but complicated relationship between parts and wholes and the powerful forces of edges.

Just imagine that the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius had spoken in De rerum natura not about the atoms and celestial bodies of the universe, but instead about social bodies and the meanings they constitute by virtue of their place in the universe. Such an imaginary reading might yield someone rather like Mikhail Bakhtin, a materially minded philosopher who began, as did Lucretius, by concentrating upon bits and pieces and wondering about their relation to a hypothesized whole. Rather than reading a full-scale history of the fragment into Bakhtin's writings, therefore, it might be better to read his thoughts as fragments. For however we choose to explain Bakhtin's fragmentary beginnings—whether as indicating that he never wished to bring his early works to completion or perhaps that he just outgrew them—when we look at Bakhtin as a thinker, his thought looks back at us in broken pieces with varying degrees of similarity and disagreement. We come into contact with what David Lloyd attributes to hybridization: “an unevenness of incorporation within a developmental structure rather than an oscillation between or among identities.”22

Fragmentary beginnings are not something that must be overcome. Broken pieces—an amputated limb, unfinished manuscripts, rotting pages, copious but disjointed notes, lost books, frequent moves and exile—provide no reason to be appalled by Bakhtin's unconventional intellectual career. Neither his unwillingness to forge an ultimate, overarching synthesis nor his willingness to speak about his own incompleteness is an aspect of his thought that should be cause for alarm. And why should we feel “shock” over a reference to Bakhtin's “incomplete” body or to the stump left after his leg's amputation?23

Reading Bakhtin has often consisted in efforts to compensate for the fragmentary nature of his works, although there has been very little talk about fragments as such.24 In all fairness, however, it must be acknowledged that the fragmentary nature of Bakhtin's work is something that shows rather than being explicitly discussed by him. It can be seen in the shifting pieces of his oeuvre as they proceed from note to essay form—and from collected volumes in Russian to different configurations in English, French, or German. The essays appear in forms and lengths that vary according to the whims of their editors, while very few finished monographs appear at all. We have just the Dostoevsky book, which he revised only after considerable nudging from his followers, and the Rabelais book, which must have left a bitter taste on Bakhtin's palate after its rejection as a doctoral thesis. And significantly, as a counterpart to the fragment Toward a Philosophy of the Act, which speaks at great length about wholeness, the Rabelais book—one of his few “whole” texts—speaks quite explicitly about membra disiecta.25

Like the child who has virtually infinite possibilities in the future, the fragmentary beginning also speaks to an abstract possibility which must acquire “flesh and blood.” The child's future lies entirely in front of the presently lived moment, but which direction will that life take in the future? As a series of beginning moments in Bakhtin's intellectual career, his fragments prod us to think carefully about the question of how “progress” could ever occur in his work. And when we read the young Bakhtin's fragments after having read his later works, we encounter a curiously reversed temporal “progress” in his thought, sometimes with surprising or even grotesque effects. (“Even if the restitution of the past is a plus for our knowledge of a foregone era, it is above all a promise for the future in the eyes of creative persons.”26) We must be careful to retain a certain sense of open-endedness with respect to these fragments, given the strong possibility that our reading of the young Bakhtin “back” from our own future and in terms of his may well cut away the open-ended nature of the fragment itself.

Just try to explain to a child crying over a recently broken toy that you, the complete adult, are unable to reassemble the broken pieces simply by pressing them together. The broken toy leads to the child's realization that time moves forward and, in so doing, often eliminates many possibilities during its passage. The broken toy will no longer be able to do all the interesting things it once could do, if only because its immortal status has been lost and its ultimate vulnerability exposed. It is material proof that accidents can happen which take on the form of “disastrous events,” or, in Lucretian terms: “So you may see that events cannot be said to be by themselves like matter or in the same sense as space. Rather, you should describe them as accidents of matter, or of the place in which things happen.”27

So, too, do new configurations of matter and space remind us that it is forever impossible to restore broken pieces to the form in which they once belonged or to ever re-member them and reestablish the wholeness they once upheld. (As Nancy Miller writes, reading, for a woman, is often a reminder that “her identity is also re-membered in the stories of the body.”28) In light of this context, it is not surprising to find the body at the center of the part/whole problematic in Bakhtin's thought. Moreover, a sort of symbiotic relationship between tone and body can be identified, with “tone” and “intonation” two other terms for a body that provides the link between individuality and the social world: “Everything that is actually experienced is experienced as something given and as something-yet-to-be-determined, is intonated, has an emotional-volitional tone, and enters into an effective relationship to me within the unity of the ongoing event encompassing us.”29 The whole's ability to be broken down, the fact that it cannot remain intact forever, is a basic requirement of becoming. As Lucretius noted, “Partless objects cannot have the essential properties of generative matter—those varieties of attachment, weight, impetus, impact and movement on which everything depends.”30 Or, in Bakhtin's terms, “An object that is absolutely indifferent, totally finished, cannot be something one becomes actually conscious of, something one experiences actually.”31

The times and places issuing forth from Bakhtin's scattered texts convey a temporal movement other than linear progression. His various pieces—books, jottings, fragments, notes, and essays—do not appear to be cumulative. Contradictions are always possible where memory does not seem to store or stockpile information for future use. Bakhtin was apparently always able and prepared to start again from another point of view, similar to Roland Barthes's self-described method: “Liking to find, to write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many pleasures.”32 The young Bakhtin's metaphorics of light can serve as a metaphor in turn for the indirectedness of his thought: multiple rays which “fan out” from multiple sources,33 with each ray another fragmentary beginning. If the Bakhtinian fragment is seen in terms of advancing multiple lines, we can better understand why it is impossible to read Bakhtin's corpus backwards, that is, to read back innocently, even though he may have (as is often claimed) later revisited the questions left undeveloped in his early work. It is likewise impossible to patch up broken or amputated limbs and reattach them to the central body of Bakhtin's thought. His having “returned” to rethink what he had previously said, and often to contradict his earlier pronouncements, should not be viewed as intentional efforts to (re)establish a new and improved whole out of the imperfect parts of the past. It seems far more probable that these were actually fresh starts. When the older Bakhtin would revisit the younger, it was not simply to correct himself, to fill in the gaps or to be more precise, but more a matter of showing the infinite possibilities entailed by starting off in another direction from where you once stood. Like M.-Pierrette Malcuzynski, I have little use for readings based on positing two distinct intellectual personalities, the “young” and the “old” Bakhtin,34 reminiscent of the manner in which Althusser cast his questions about Lukács's Marxism. The function of fragments in Bakhtin's thinking points most urgently toward the need to understand how the edges of any piece in a body of work make their multiple contacts with the other edges.

Let us not mistake Mikhail Bakhtin for a kind of philosophical Humpty-Dumpty whom we might somehow put back together if we could recruit enough king's horses and enough king's men to the task. Just as we could never be certain that what we had managed to reconstruct even resembled what it was before it fell to pieces, neither can we undo what the passage of time, the movement of matter and place, has done to what was subject to its forces. Those readings of Bakhtin which seek to reconstruct his lost thought from the scattered pieces of his work represent an unworkable enterprise that overestimates, or rather misconstrues, what cultural memory is all about. At the core of every memory operation lies a profound unpredictability, and this is the basis of the indirectedness of Bakhtin's thought as it unfolds over time. It is the same as the indirectedness that grounds semantics and the philosophical impossibility of expressing the irreducibly particular in a language built on generalizations. The workings of memory, both individual and collective, always strive to “embody” disparate elements from a given abstract system and to turn them into the event of their expression. Speaking, writing, and communicating in general are all modes for the embodiment of meaning—that which constitutes the eventness at the heart of every dialogic exchange. Among the countless examples of this image of incarnated meaning in Toward a Philosophy of the Act, consider the following pair:

Mathematical time and space guarantee the possible sense-unity of possible judgments (an actual judgment requires actual emotional-volitional interestedness), whereas my actual participation in time and space from my unique place in Being guarantees their inescapably compellent actuality and their valuative uniqueness—invests them, as it were, with flesh and blood.

Only the value of mortal man provides the standards for measuring the spatial and the temporal orders: space gains body as the possible horizon of mortal man and as his possible environment, and time possesses valuative weight and heaviness as the progression of mortal man's life.35

The body of meaning and exchange is precisely that which escapes the predictability of any preestablished system. The body is always the event that interrupts the smooth unfolding of an abstract idea, a three-dimensional synchronicity appearing in a semantic space which is often inadequate for coping with it.36 This is also the point of view taken by Michel de Certeau, who, in his work on everyday practices, discusses how people “cheat” the system not maliciously or dishonestly, but because in merely moving through space the body will always find shortcuts and will always adapt its surroundings to its own particular needs and habits.37 As the site where unexpected encounters outwit predictions and where multiple bumps and openings outmaneuver any attempt to close off the outside world, the body as incarnated meaning enables Bakhtin to counteract, while thinking of the irreducible individuality of any act, any process that would render us “determined, predetermined, bygone, and finished, that is, essentially not living,” creatures.38 The fragment, as the interruptive body, is based not on an overarching principle of wholeness but on an economy of regions where it operates (to borrow from Drew Leder) “according to indigenous principles” and where it incorporates “different parts of the world into its space.”39

Toward a Philosophy of the Act is a profound statement on chronotopicity. In numerous passages, time and space are bundled together as essential components in the process of “embodying” meaning, that is, the transformation of abstract possibility into concrete, lived reality. “I exist in the world of inescapable actuality, and not in that of contingent possibility.”40 With Bakhtin, open possibilities, understood as possibilities for comparison and juxtaposition, become a matter of asking how a given fragment links up with what precedes and follows it. Here, we can ask how, as a fragment, Toward a Philosophy of the Act compares with other fragments.

There is, no doubt, a certain usefulness to comparing, on the one hand, the way chronotopicity is expressed or manifested in terms of both an event and its irreducible indirectedness in this particular fragment with, on the other, its treatment elsewhere in Bakhtin's work. Given that in the early fragments the uniqueness of the event is described in almost desperate terms, it would be appropriate to see how space and time are woven together in Bakhtin's work during, say, the “sociological” period of the 1930s. There are, however, certain controversial aspects that such a comparison would have to take into account, not the least of which is the tendency to transform the fragmentary early writings into integral parts of a larger whole. For our own purposes here, such a comparison (its usefulness to understanding Bakhtin's intellectual career notwithstanding) should not be the means of attaining a global picture of his thought, which would be to treat it “as a whole.” Moreover, we should pay very careful attention to two nasty methodological traps that such comparisons can readily set even for a reading aimed at respecting the indirectedness of these early fragments from Bakhtin's oeuvre.

The first trap to be avoided is that of projecting a sort of 1990s Western-style fascination with ethics, through whatever insidious means, onto these most vaguely termed and furtively expressed ideas from Bakhtin's intellectual youth. Let us admit, as a starting point, that the things we say and feel about ethics at the end of the twentieth century are too often tainted by being steeped in individualistically centered or pragmatically oriented perspectives that are not necessarily consonant with the neo-Kantian enterprise pursued in the 1920s by the young Bakhtin. In other words, the question of ethics and its place in his early work is strongly suggestive of an impossible dream—explaining Bakhtin entirely on the basis of a single issue. A further problem is the fact that Toward a Philosophy of the Act contains a number of loosely expressed notions that Bakhtin may or may not have intended to explore later on. Any such movement toward a whole from a small piece would oblige us to employ a number of tools inappropriate to the task of reading a fragment; these tools, forged for the specific ideological needs of the late twentieth century, give us very little by way of any new means for grasping the complexities of Russia at the beginning of the century, where and when this fragmentary essay was written.

The second—and related—methodological trap would follow from a decision to read Toward a Philosophy of the Act primarily as a text stressing ethical questions and considerations contextualized by a set of ethical principles peculiar to the neo-Kantian project as Bakhtin saw it at the time. Such ethical questions are not universally expressible norms valid for any and every context. Here, the trap would consist in taking this particular ethical point of view (if that were indeed what must be read as primary in the fragment) and projecting it onto later or other (i.e., not neo-Kantian) theoretical frameworks developed by Bakhtin. The ethical framework in Toward a Philosophy of the Act to the extent that it can be deciphered, is in some ways radically different from the types of considerations developed in his essay on speech genres, for example, or in his readings of Rabelais and Gogol. Bakhtin's thinking would become quite different from what it was in the early fragments, and, even in those instances where he seems to have returned to some of the issues he explored earlier, how can we be certain that he was returning to precisely the same issues as before?

The profound indirectedness of the original fragments means that it is hazardous to draw from the discussions in any given early piece a set of irreversible vectors that will inevitably lead to some conclusions at the expense of others. When we consider how intensely interested this young prosaist would become in such diverse writers and thinkers as Shakespeare, Saussure, Bergson, Kant, Freud, Buber, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goethe, and Rabelais (diverse, that is, except in gender), then what becomes obvious is that a certain madness lies in believing it possible to envisage from Bakhtin's very first fragments all the twists and turns of his future work on dialogic thinking, as if the contours of this project had already been precisely delineated even before the project itself existed.

The important reasons why Bakhtin's thought is from the very start, or rather from each of its several starts, steeped in indirectedness all have to do with chronotopicity, the peculiar temporality and spatiality of any site which must make way for time and matter. We can imagine Bakhtin's career as constituted by a loose set of reflections that move back and forth across a number of theoretical fields but without appearing to lead in one particular direction. Niklas Luhmann's concept of communication is useful for understanding Bakhtin's movement from one idea to another, from one fragment to another.41 Luhmann sees communication as the permanently mobile process of achieving appropriate forms for a given medium of expression which functions within an always larger cultural environment. Like the early Bakhtin, he is concerned with the relationship between a larger whole and the smaller units within it. His conceptualization offers a useful way of seeing the process of giving form to communication as a transformation especially of time and space, each of which is applied to an originally formless meaning intention. This effectively chronotopic metamorphosis of thought into speech certainly describes what the young Bakhtin construed according to the parameters of a struggle between the tendency toward a fixed or systematized expression (what he would later call centripetal forces), on the one hand, and the need to account for the utterance or the event of meaning (what would later be termed the centrifugal forces of speech), on the other. In Toward a Philosophy of the Act these are presented concurrently not in a binary opposition, but as a framework for understanding the difficult relationship in which any given part is engaged with the larger parts to which it may or may not be well integrated. Luhmann expresses this problem by recourse to the term Anschlussfähigkeit: the ability of a given unit to enter into relations with other units, or, more literally, “the ability to make connections.” (Indeed, this view of the way signs can forge links with the extraverbal world of everyday practice is consonant with Vološinov's concept of the relationship between an utterance and the larger context, which he explains with reference to the notion of “enthymeme.”42) Applied to Bakhtin's career, this “ability” of a given item “to make connections” is not so much a semiotic question of the individual sign's linking up with the next and that one with the third, and so on (i.e., the concatenation of otherwise independent signs), as it is a question of understanding how his various fragments, of different stature and scope, link up with one another. This question is undoubtedly linked to the fundamental problem of how we arrive at social structures starting from individual beings, themselves fractured in a world that makes multiple demands on them. For our purposes here, the question is what we can do with such pieces as Toward a Philosophy of the Act—or, more pertinently, what Bakhtin did with them.

In understanding Bakhtin not as a whole but as a variously disjointed and juxtaposed set of fragments, each engaged in heterogeneous relations with any and many others, we can retain the necessary element of risk embodied at the edges of any Bakhtinian fragment: “It is precisely doubt that forms the basis of our life as effective deed-performing, and it does so without coming into contradiction with theoretical cognition.”43 (This doubt is precisely what is potentially closed off by readings of Bakhtin that seem proud to be proceeding “retrospectively.”44) Risk is the fundamental element that Mary Russo develops with such elegance in her study of the “female grotesque.” She shows the necessity of allowing for chance, uncertainty, in any adequate understanding of how even the strangest social bits are assigned a place in their world: “Unlike the models of progress, rationality, and liberation which dissociate themselves from their ‘mistakes’—noise, dissonance, or monstrosity—this ‘room for chance’ emerges within the very constrained spaces of normalization.”45 We know that, for Bakhtin, it was essential to keep possibilities open rather than closing them off—the same issue that would arise at different moments of his thinking in relation to prose read in silence.

Relative to the embodiment of meaning and to the event of expression as intimately linked to Bakhtin's chronotopic thinking, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship gives us a tool for conceptualizing his notion of “becoming.” There we find the “body-sign [telo-znak],”46 a useful way of seeing “becoming” as bodily meaning-making within the linguistic systems available to us. In short, the body-sign is the incarnated communicational event. This problem is also broached, albeit from a different angle, in Michael Holquist's Dialogism. Holquist is intent on showing that we can best understand the chronotope in terms of an event, the material event of implicit meaning's taking on the precise contours of time and space in a given situation and in relation to a particular speech partner. Holquist's view is supported by the fact that for Dostoevsky (Bakhtin's favorite author) the greatest issues approached by philosophers, the ultimate questions of life, could never be understood as pure abstractions, but rather had to take on material contours in a particularized event of meaning. They had to be embodied in order to be adequately understood. This is precisely, according to Holquist, the role of the chronotope in Bakhtin's thinking. Any shared fable (fabula) in our culture is grasped only in the concrete forms with which a particular version (syuzhet) of the story endows it; in other words, it must be chronotopically transformed. The abstract fable cannot directly penetrate our consciousness, so it must be grasped indirectly through the “flesh and blood” situation provided by the event of its recasting in a particular form. “Stated in its most basic terms, a particular chronotope will be defined by the specific way in which the sequentiality of events is ‘deformed’ (always involving a segmentation, a spatialization) in any given account of those events. It is this necessary simultaneity of figure (in this case, plot) and ground (or story) that constitutes the dialogic element in the chronotope.”47 Whether Holquist's Formalist-fable story of the chronotope is entirely consonant with Bakhtin's thinking in general is not the issue. What is important in our context is the connection between abstraction as never immediately available to consciousness and indirectedness as a basic necessity of human meaning-making in general. This indirectedness must always proceed through the real-life situation expressed by the chronotope.

However, one unfortunate consequence of Holquist's conception of the chronotope's “dialogism” is that his fable seems to confine it to narrative, whereas it may be more useful to step beyond the realm of artistic (literary) expression and see the act in the broader context of real-life situations. As Bakhtin notes, “Aesthetic activity is a participation of a special, objectified kind; from within an aesthetic architectonic there is no way out into the world of the performer of deeds, for he is located outside the field of objectified aesthetic seeing.”48 Here we see the contours of a semiotic thinking which, not being limited to artistic expression per se, can use certain aesthetic forms to get a better handle on the complex, real-life situatedness of human beings interacting with one another. Bakhtin's fragmentary project calls for a radical rethinking of “prosaics,” which must not be understood in opposition to any theoretical construing of human eventness any more than it can be opposed to the poetic-aesthetic understanding of human situatedness. A study of how fragments interact with one another shows enormous differences in their respective degrees of autonomy. It is not always advisable to treat a fragmentary piece as “coherent” in itself, but often better to consider its inherent incompleteness as a call for help from the outside. In Judith Butler's words: “It is important to resist that theoretical gesture of pathos in which exclusions are simply affirmed as sad necessities of signification. The task is to refigure this necessary ‘outside’ as a future horizon, one in which the violence of exclusion is perpetually in the process of being overcome.”49 The relationship between any two given fragments is not necessarily dialogical but one that can be termed (borrowing from Lloyd) an example of “intercontamination.”50 An interesting case in point is the relationship between the “Supplementary Section” appended to “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” in Art and Answerability and the title essay in Toward a Philosophy of the Act, two texts offering significant variants on similar ideas and analyses of the same poem. If we view an act as a sort of behavioral fragment, we can see how such “intercontamination” works, insofar as that act does not constitute an absolute contrast to all that is different from it. “An answerable deed,” says Bakhtin, “must not oppose itself to theory and thought, but must incorporate them into itself as necessary moments that are wholly answerable.”51

If Bakhtin's thinking from fragments does in fact point to the need to rethink the way we understand a prosaic vision of the world, there would also be a need to incorporate within that vision certain ideas on the prose du monde of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel Foucault. Of course, we must first agree on what we mean by “prosaic” and “prose” even if, as a preliminary move, we might say that the very terminological imprecision surrounding these notions is part and parcel of the indirectedness of communication we associate with Bakhtin's earliest fragments. It remains to be shown, nevertheless, that the most provocative questions touched on in Toward a Philosophy of the Act are less entrenched in classical ethics (as an autonomous philosophical discipline) than couched in terms of the problem of how a given part or fragment engages in potential relationships with other parts or larger wholes along its edges. It is from the angles of Luhmann's Anschlussfähigkeit and Bakhtin's fragments that we can attain the bases for understanding the energy of a prosaic world.

For our purposes, the prosaic must be characterized over and against its etymological definition as oratio prosa (discourse which proceeds straight ahead), if for no other reason than that we are dealing with writers whose prose is capable of proceeding in a number of directions rather than merely straightforwardly.52 Prose, as the embodied expression of indirectedness, would therefore also need to be distinguished from the related ideal of the pro-position, with its similar etymology of “that which has been placed in front, that which has been set forth.” The indirectedness that lies at the heart of prosaic expression is intimately linked with the problem of smaller parts which must (or perhaps must never) fit into larger ones. In other words, this is the same problem as the disrupting influence of the time of utterance into the smooth space of what is being said or of apparitions of past history or even glimpses of the future within the time and space of an utterance act in the present. It is the unsettling arrival of social reality in the seemingly private realm of an individual's thinking. Thus prosaics, the study of any expression that takes form in prose, must be concerned with memory, both individual and cultural, as it too is steeped in the difficult arrivals of foreign times and places within the present unfolding of the utterance seeking to frame them. Intimately linked, prose and memory are two ways of approaching the problem of how any event of expression occurring between different persons and respecting all their differences in history and origin can ever come to be seen as a single whole.

From the very start, prosaics can be placed in a position where the directions in which it is headed are never steadfastly set out in advance. Prose is seen, even in Bakhtin's early fragments, in relation to double-faced phenomena, or the “two-faced Janus,” which cannot be reduced without irrecuperable loss to a single dimensionality. “If the ‘face’ of the event is determined from the unique place of a participative self, then there are as many different ‘faces’ as there are different unique places.”53 Given that one of the distinguishing features of prose for Bakhtin, especially that of the novel, is its ability to carry more than one voice—indeed, a multiplicity of visions, moments, perspectives, and points of view—then the only way of getting at the heart of prose is through such multiplicity. Just as blood vessels branch out from the heart in every imaginable direction to feed every cell of the body, so too does prose, the vessel of le multiple,54 redefine the space and time in which it evolves. Or, as Lucretius puts it, “Now, we see that water flows out in all directions from a broken vessel and the moisture is dissipated, and mist and smoke vanish into thin air.”55 Time will no longer be adequately represented by the traditional image of a river flowing along a single riverbed or without twists and turns. The only river of time by which we could image the movement of prose would now have to be that of a delta, splitting into thousands of branches, changing direction according to the season, even backing up completely with tidal waters at unpredictable intervals.

From the very beginning, Bakhtin's prosaics would exhibit a similar pattern of branching out and changing direction in accordance with the strange logic of the multiple. It seems reasonable to assume that he himself did not know in which direction he was proceeding and into which intellectual quarters he was headed. When Bakhtin began writing those texts he never finished, he would have been hard put to say where everything was going to lead. How can we then claim that there was an implicitly coherent project in those fragments? And if Bakhtin truly believed (as Morson and Emerson seem to think) that the most important notions covered in Toward a Philosophy of the Act were those of ethical responsibility relating to the individual's engaged obligations, can we not say now, for more than one reason, that he was perhaps speaking about something very different? This would be consistent with prosaic indirectedness as leading in several directions at once, thus never proceeding as a straightforward proposition. Similarly, we could say in accordance with this fundamental indirectedness that Bakhtin's many projects are all disoriented: his many beginnings, in many fragments and under several names, were continually being launched without a particularly well-defined goal having been spelled out. Contrary to those who have claimed to see a clearly defined project in Bakhtin's early texts and those who have claimed that his fragments contain in nuce what he would develop in detail when he matured, the early fragments and certainly Toward a Philosophy of the Act leave us with a much more scattered impression. In what is supposed to be the start of a dialogic method in the human sciences, for example, there is a sense of profound insecurity, one that corresponds to the difficulty of thinking through the event of theoretical thought in the course of its very constitution as an event.

If by the bodily delivery of the word we necessarily understand the fundamental characteristics of a disruptive event—a rupture within an abstractly conceived life continuum—then the utterance is indeed an interruption that allows for the entry of everyday existence into the realm of potentially inert meaning. We are in the realm of the accident or rupture that we ourselves, as social and biological beings, bring into play in the otherwise smooth flow of abstract time. In the event of human meaning-making, there is always much stir and movement even when that movement is an undirected or misguided one.

Readings that stress the unbridled energy exuded by Bakhtin's broken thinking often convey some worry to do with its disquieting potential. “Because meaning can only be acquired by recourse to a global whole, one that is impossible to grasp within the magma of social discourses, it is undermined by doubts that are increasingly difficult to bear.”56 We can accept these doubts as productive and see in them the sign of our necessary participation in, as opposed to our passive observation of, the unfolding of social discourses. “In this view, we are capable of knowing what is around us not because we are separated from it, subjects facing objects, but because we are part of it, order amid disorder.”57 The reading of Bakhtin that I have been pursuing here finds it less worrisome than stimulating that his prosaic vision would contribute to seeing words alone as never adequate to expressing the eventful character of meaning in the making. Aided only by the philosophical vocabulary he knew, Bakhtin had great difficulty in dealing with the disruptive forces of the event; if the event seems disquieting, it is precisely because it never lets things be. The event of meaning-making interrupts the continuous illusion that wholeness seeks to maintain; it disrupts the even flow of words striving for a deceptively calm rhythm by its forceful insistence on meanings that move in every direction at once. Disorientation may ensue from this lack of direction, but this very indirectedness may itself be the trace of a broken thought in motion. If the aim is to speak to this thought, it would seem much less appropriate to try to capture it—while undoing its multiple facets—than to ask multiple questions of it as it moves.

Rather than discounting it as mess or counting it out of any serious theoretical discussion, we should set ourselves toward understanding this indirectedness in terms of its basic refusal to remain still. In his thinking, Bakhtin jumps from fragment to fragment and from topic to topic. It is doubtful that he ever had any master game plan in mind as he proceeded in this way. Toward a Philosophy of the Act conveys a sense of continually stirred ideas which come back, over and over again, to the linkages between wholes and parts and between time and space. Those who insist on reading it in terms of the texts Bakhtin would write later on—as if this one were already leading in a well-defined direction—can point to a number of similarities, superficial or profound, between what the young Bakhtin says here and what the more mature Bakhtin would later say. Such readings can point to his Baron Münchhausen figure who tries to raise himself up by his own hair,58 the heavy stress on tones and intonation informing Bakhtin's understanding of meaning as embodied utterances and responsibilities. This emphasis, furthermore, points toward obvious parallels between Bakhtin and Vološinov (which Morson and Emerson, for obvious reasons, fail to underscore). Then there is the idea of the rough draft, which would reappear in Bakhtin's writing as scaffolding that is no longer visible, but still significant, once the building has been completed.59 In de Certeau's terms, this stressing of similarities over time is based on a reading of strategies, while Bakhtin proceeded more on the basis of tactics:

What I call a strategy is the calculation (or the manipulation) of power relationships which becomes possible once a site for the will or a capability (a private enterprise, an army, a municipality, a scientific institution) can be isolated. A strategy presupposes a particular site which can be described as separate and which forms the basis from which relationships with an outside, expressed in terms of goals and threats, can be managed. … I call a tactic an action calculated with reference to the absence of any separate site. In this case, there is no outside which delimits its scope or conditions its automony.60

It should be clear, therefore, why the possibilities in Bakhtin's cursus are necessary, given the absence of any overarching set of superconcepts capable of anticipating all future possibilities even before they have arisen, such as a military strategist would deploy from the very start in accordance with whatever outcome he was planning every step of the way. In Bakhtin's case, his moves from one fragment to the next, from one piece to another, can best be conceptualized as “risk-taking tactics.”61 For every striking similarity we find between the young and the older Bakhtin, there is surely an even more important dissimilarity: think of his language of light, of fullness, unity, and truth. This plethora of likenesses and differences between the Bakhtin we already know and the younger one whom we are only now discovering should lead us to resist any temptation to select only those elements from the work of the young Bakhtin that parallel what he wrote later (thereby disregarding his basic thesis that an utterance as such is unrepeatable). By accepting the fragmentary nature of the greater part of Bakhtin's writing, however, we come to see every textual utterance as a highly significant threshold, an in-between zone marking off the here of a given text from the theres of prior texts and those to come. Such a liminal space, surrounding the fragment on all sides, allows us to appreciate the productive nature of the fragmentation at the heart of Bakhtin's events.

Of course, an emphasis on the undirected fragment is not incompatible with seeing ethics as an important component of Toward a Philosophy of the Act. It does seem ill-advised, however, to project anything Bakhtin said about ethics in an early fragment onto all his later writings. It would be more fruitful, at the very least, to incorporate his ethics of the individual act into a framework which can accommodate the productivity of those thresholds or cracks that lie between the various fragments. This mode of reading is certainly preferable to attempts to paper over the profound differences among Bakhtin's various pieces, moves that make the cracks invisible. These cracks between the texts in Bakhtin's corpus are possibly seen as the sites where the marks of his individuality can be identified. In them we witness the strange temporality of a present that would be repeatedly and variously reactivated and thereby constituting an excellent illustration of the in-between. As both the here and the now of an event at the heart of the early Bakhtin's thinking, this in-between starkly contrasts with the purely taxonomic and literary chronotopes, lying outside the personal purview of the writer himself, that dominate the later fragmentary essay on the chronotope.

In Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Bakhtin does not use the terms “chronotope” and “threshold,” but he nevertheless formulates his descriptions of eventness in terms of a time and a space that are inextricably linked. Among the numerous examples here of this entanglement, I shall limit myself for now to two. In the first, Bakhtin speaks of the unique place (space) and of a beginning (time) in such a manner as to indicate that time is certainly no more powerful than space, but rather that both are mixed in a sort of solution: “It is only the acknowledgment of my unique participation in Being from my own unique place in Being that provides an actual center from which my act or deed can issue and renders a beginning non-fortuitous.” The second example is perhaps more obvious: “This actual participating from a concretely unique point in Being engenders the real heaviness of time and the intuitable-palpable value of space, makes all boundaries heavy, non-fortuitous.” Without one or the other ingredient, the character of becoming would be lost for Bakhtin. It is also instructive to note where they are treated separately, particularly in the early sections of this fragment, where the emphasis is on space: “In relation to everything, whatever it might be and in whatever circumstances it might be given to me, I must act from my own unique place, even if I do so only inwardly”; “for, after all, my performed act (and my feeling—as a performed act) orients itself precisely with reference to that which is conditioned by the uniqueness and unrepeatability of my own place.”62 Such pronouncements surely do not bode well for interpretations of Bakhtin's chronotope as inherently more temporal than spatial. The chronotopicity of Toward a Philosophy of the Act certainly takes space as well as time to be an indispensable component of its dynamism.

Regardless of the validity of this last observation, Bakhtin seems to have been intent on strewing his methodological path with contradictions; his efforts to use the impossible tools of general philosophical abstractions to address irreducible individuality rendered the fragment, in and of itself, part of the eventness about which he could speak only with great difficulty. The problem is the essential “impossibility of positing novelty and of conceptualizing it.”63 Bakhtin's attempts to do so within his abstract language in statements such as the following one seem hopelessly inadequate, perhaps grotesque: “The moment of what is absolutely new, what has never existed before and can never be repeated, is in the foreground here and constitutes an answerable continuation in the spirit of that whole which was acknowledged at one time.”64 The impossibility of speaking of eventness can only be comprehended (Kierkegaard's term referring to the existential paradoxes that are exacerbated by language65), that is, this impossibility can only be approximated by oblique reference to particular aporiatic or inexplicable situations. In Bakhtin's case, the paradox consists in dreaming about totality within a fragment. A contradiction appears in the eventful clash between his tools and his explicit aims, a situation reminiscent of a paradox with which the ancient Greeks were most fascinated: the paradox of movement. As we remember, they understood something that moved to be simultaneously here and not here, sensing as they did the impossibility of separating time and space analytically in order to explain an intrinsically chronotopic phenomenon. When we abstractly dissect movement, we see an infinite sequence of tiny thresholds, each a fragment of the larger whole and each recasting the problem of a present time and a present space that repeatedly renew themselves and allow for further division. “In one perceptible instant of time, that is, the time required to utter a single syllable, there are many unperceived units of time whose existence is recognized by reason.”66 Each fragment of movement is caught between the space of its past and the space of its future, with its contradictory directedness assembled from out of the conflicting elements present in both.

Toward a Philosophy of the Act provides certain indispensable tools for understanding the indelibly chronotopic energy on the edges of any fragment. As we move between Bakhtin's fragments, we cannot predict with any degree of reliability whether we are beginning something new or continuing on with something old, whether we are setting off in a new direction or doubling back in our tracks. From the very start, a possible trajectory is conceivable in virtually any direction, and this virtuality is itself inhabited by the infinite configurations of the times and spaces which constitute possible events. The complicated and convoluted relationships between the parts and the dreamt-of whole in Bakhtin's fragment reproduce the difficulties of understanding how the autonomous individual is related to the larger social group of which he is a member (or in terms of which he is an outsider). “One should remember that to live from within myself, from my own unique place in Being, does not yet mean at all that I live only for my own sake.” Let us not be fooled by the fact that Bakhtin uses spatializing metaphorics to speak of individuality, nor assume on the basis of such imagery that we are dealing with an impregnable fortress: “I occupy a place in once-occurrent Being that … cannot be taken by anyone else and is impenetrable for anyone else.”67 In certain passages of his early writing, this utopic realm of wholeness is given the name of “aesthetics”: “The mere fact that a cognitive-ethical determination relates to the whole human being, that it encompasses all of him, already constitutes a moment that is aesthetic”; or it is approached from the angle of architectonics: “the intuitionally necessary, nonfortuitous disposition and integration of concrete, unique parts and moments into a consummated whole.”68 In all instances, we see in Bakhtin's thought a tense relationship between the nonexistent wholeness of his philosophical aspirations and the hard reality of his fragmentary thought, as in this statement: “My active unique place is not just an abstract geometrical center, but constitutes an answerable, emotional-volitional, concrete center of the concrete manifoldness of the world, in which the spatial and temporal moment—the actual unique place and the actual, once-occurrent, historical day and hour of accomplishment—is a necessary but not exhaustive moment of my actual centrality—my centrality for myself.”69

These times and spaces are anything but inert and immutable, and they can be grasped as dynamic components of events endowed with energy and significance by the endless flux of social interaction. Social times and spaces allow us to come to grips with the eventful nature of extra-aesthetic human life in general. In those instances where he speaks of their possible combinations, Bakhtin provides tools for rethinking the rules of such combinations, social and material. Every event is actually a false start of the sort we have already seen here, particularly due to the impossibility of fitting it neatly in with everything that precedes and follows it. Stuck between preceding and succeeding, while proposing infinitely varied inroads into both, the fragment is an event which partakes of the indirectedness of every temporal and spatial configuration of what is becoming. When Bakhtin speaks in his early texts of the movement inherent in every authentic act, therefore, he does not hesitate to work toward an activity that, as we have noted, “is like a two-faced Janus.” In this particular instance, it would seem promising to understand his reference to the Roman god quite literally.

It is possible, then, to read Bakhtin's own work according to his proposals for reading the prose of the world. We can, for example, read Bakhtin as a writer of “artistic prose”—to take a term intelligently exploited by Emily Schultz70—accordingly reading his intellectual life as a prosaic one full of indirected and disoriented fragments. In striving to make room for a boundless supply of surprises, we would resist predictable series. “Having acknowledged once the value of scientific truth in all the deeds or achievements of scientific thinking, I am henceforth subjected to its immanent law: the one who says a must also say b and c, and thus all the way to the end of the alphabet. The one who said one, must say two: he is drawn by the immanent necessity of a series (the law of series).”71 When dealing with Bakhtin's career of fragments, it is not long before we discover his Freud, who might have described the problem of Bakhtin's fragmentary life trajectory as that of someone who did not know where to find his beginnings or his ends. Freud and Bakhtin had a shared fascination with the idea that it is pragmatically impossible for us to know our beginning or our end (i.e., our birth or our death). This irremediable lack of acquaintance with the two most important “events” of our lives is what makes the idea of orienting life in relation to them a hazardous operation. The problematic presence/absence of birth and death within conscious life preoccupied Bakhtin throughout his career and was undoubtedly related to his profound belief in the fundamental unfinalizability of the human being. In Elisheva Rosen's terms: “The attractive elements of fantastic depiction, one expressed through incompletion and by broken pieces, wins out against those of coherent representation, something which conforms and is expected.”72 Curiously, in another early fragment, this impossibility of knowing is construed by Bakhtin in terms of an indispensable knowledge: “The only important thing is that a life and its horizon have terminal limits—birth and death.”73 (This is surely an instance of Kierkegaard's way of approaching a paradox by “comprehending its incomprehensibility.”74) The contemporary thinker Peter Sloterdijk, in describing our own period as suffering from an inability to speak of its origins and its end, refers provocatively to a “poetics of the beginning [Poetik des Anfangens].”75 When everything we do and say is oriented in relation to events we cannot know, we are likely to encounter existential difficulties, which is all the more reason to recognize that, whatever the young Bakhtin might have said in his early fragments, he did not necessarily know what he would say later on the very same topic.

It is as if we were trapped in the unenviable situation of having totally lost our defense mechanisms—as if some frightful virus had destroyed our sense of orientation. Talk of viruses is an interesting component of medieval historian Aaron Gurjewitsch's reading of Bakhtin's carnival. Gurjewitsch says, for example, that our modern viruses play essentially the same ideological role in our lives as evil spirits and demons played during the Middle Ages. Not coincidentally for the indirectedness presumed to be at the heart of Bakhtin's prosaic world, one of the most striking characteristics of the devil is precisely his ability to trick us by forever giving us the impression that he is moving forward when in reality he is moving backwards: “When the devil has taken on human form, it is impossible to view him from behind, since evil spirits have no back and they always move in a way similar to crustaceans.”76

The indirectedness of an incomplete body is the same as that of a fragment pointing simultaneously toward a thousand other pieces; any one of these may be the one toward which it will eventually head. There is an inherent multiplicity, since any given element can indeed be represented as belonging to several possible directions at the same time. In this respect, it is very different from the sort of bilingualism described by Tzvetan Todorov, who cannot imagine the simultaneous action of two cultural identities appearing together.77 In the dynamic chronotopicity by which Bakhtin's pieces together construct provisionary new wholes, we begin to perceive a basic mechanism of human memory, perhaps the best of models for studying the prose of the world. Memory, like a changing configuration of fragments, always operates on the basis of reconstitutions that can never be totally successful. It is the process, without beginning or end, by which heterogeneous elements from every imaginable time and place are rearranged in a new, temporary whole and are thereby given a new temporality and a new spatiality—that of uttering a memory. Like myths of social harmony and cohesion, memory gives the illusion that the profound differences among all the heterogeneous elements it has recently appropriated have disappeared in the process (“hegemony envisions so contiguous a discourse that the troping collapses from consciousness and the power of discursive representation is rewritten as the power of literal presentation”78). Something inside us, our need to believe in a greater whole, pushes us to reject the validity of fragmentary meaning. To “re-member” pieces or broken bodies—the verb's derivation from the Latin rememorare notwithstanding—suggests to readers of Bakhtin the folly of trying to put lost members back in place. If memories are etymologically lost in too many members, everything seems to point toward a problematic reconstitution of the members that have been strewn in every which direction. In the prose of the world, any one of these members or fragments of an apparently lost, coherent body can be seen as its back or front, as its tail or head. With the loss of any functional distinction between before and behind in a world without head or tail, we begin to appreciate the untenability of a nostalgic yearning for a return to that wholeness in time and in space prior to this bewildering dismemberment. Nostalgia, according to Jean-Luc Nancy, is the impossible desire to return to one's beginning by erasing all traces of the passage of time and the transformations of space. Appearing when any reader or interpreter of the world's prose hoists himself into the position of a universal and eternal reader capable of transcending both moving time and changing place, it is “nostalgia for the universal position occupied by the intellectual in the narrative of representation.”79

Interrupting these desired smooth junctures as a pimple interrupts the smooth texture of our skin, the body's members represent an inexhaustible source of unexpected semantic-somatic events: bodies without backs, bodies with two faces, bodies with too many tails. Likely to break off at any time in any and every direction, the fragments of the dismemberable body provide the basic ingredients of the prose of the world. The price of meaning is insecurity or risk: when fragments are re-membered, when meaning is “embodied,” the reverse operation of dismemberment is always just as easily accomplished, since no glue can ever put the pieces back together again just as they were. Any re-memberment of the various fragments is no more and no less permanent than the members who constitute a given social group. Re-memberment is played out in a drama where authority and illusions are the principal actors. Every utterance is an attempted re-memberment, which always proceeds through the desire to master its pieces. Re-memberment and dismemberment are two names for the to-and-fro movement that underscores the impossibility of knowing what direction a fragment will take. In the very attempt to control the prose of this world we are taken in by its indirectedness.

It would seem that Merleau-Ponty's prose du monde and Bakhtin's intonation both speak to how we put our world together by re-membering its broken-off pieces. If, in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, our body, as the site of gesticulation, is that which allows us to participate in the world's unfolding,80 then the indirectedness of this world's prose gives us to understand the price of any such participation. The fragments that we re-member, the pieces we string together, can, by virtue of their ambivalent nature as back and front, turn against us. In Merleau-Ponty's view, we should understand ourselves philosophically as the objects of our own questions: “Philosophy is the entire set of questions by which the person who asks these questions is himself put into question by what he asks.”81

In the conceptual framework provided by Bakhtin's early fragments, where meaning is manifested in the chronotopically dynamic incarnation of multiple possibilities, the significant links between re-membering and fragmentation cannot be ignored. Since every fragment can potentially turn in any direction on its way to the next or the prior one, what is attained is a prosaic world in which “the living word, the full word, does not know an object as something totally given.” The world of prose is inhabited by indirectedness, and all those who participate do so without any permanent knowledge of the line to be followed or of the birth they prolong. The prose of this world must ultimately be understood as the domain of Bakhtin's two-faced Janus, the god of indirectedness who, living in a zone between a beginning and an end, makes of us, its pieces, not insignificant pieces “washed on all sides by the waves of empty possibility,”82 but living and re-membering palimpsests whose fragmented meanings remain to be discovered in an onslaught from many sides.


  1. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, L'Absolu littéraire (Paris, 1978), 64.

  2. See Hans-Robert Jauss, Ästhetische Erfahrung und literarische Hermeneutik (Frankfurt a.M., 1982), 677-78.

  3. David Lloyd. “Adulteration and the Nation: Monologic Nationalism and the Colonial Hybrid,” in An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands, ed. Alfred Arteaga (Durham, 1994), 53-92; quotations from 77.

  4. See Cecil Helman, Body Myths (London, 1991).

  5. M. M. Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, trans. Vadim Liapunov (Austin, 1993 [1986]), 42.

  6. Michael Gardiner, The Dialogics of Critique (New York, 1992), 75.

  7. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 33.

  8. Ibid., 2.

  9. See M. M. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, trans. Vadim Liapunov (Austin, 1990), 208-31.

  10. Michael Holquist, “Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability,” in ibid., xix.

  11. Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, ed. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson (Evanston, 1989), 264-65 n. 25.

  12. Ibid., 13.

  13. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 2-3.

  14. “Instead of beginning to speak, I should have preferred to surround myself in speech, and to travel well beyond any possible beginning”; Michel Foucault, L'Ordre du discours (Paris, 1971), 7.

  15. Alfred Arteaga, “An Other Tongue,” in Arteaga, ed., An Other Tongue, 9-33; quotation from 19.

  16. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 2.

  17. Ibid., 60.

  18. See Georges Benrekassa, Le Langage des Lumières: Concepts et savoir de la langue (Paris, 1995), 11.

  19. Morson and Emerson, eds., Rethinking Bakhtin, 29.

  20. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 64.

  21. Morson and Emerson, eds., Rethinking Bakhtin, 7, 14.

  22. Lloyd, “Adulteration and the Nation,” 91.

  23. See Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, “Imputations and Amputations: Reply to Wall and Thomson,” diacritics 23 (1993): 93-99.

  24. See, for example, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, 1990), where reference is made only to “Dostoevsky's deliberate fragment,” The Brothers Karamazov (253).

  25. Renate Lachmann's recent work on Russian modernism takes an insightful look at the issue of broken and dispersed bodies relative to Bakhtin's carnival and in Jan Kott's Eating of the Gods: see, especially, her discussion of sparagmos in Memory and Literature: Intertextuality in Russian Modernism, trans. Roy Sellars and Anthony Wall (Minneapolis, 1997 [1990]), 155, 309.

  26. Elisheva Rosen, Sur le grotesque: L'ancien et le nouveau dans la réflexion esthétique (Paris, 1991), 12.

  27. Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. R. E. Latham (London, 1951), 41.

  28. Nancy K. Miller, French Dressing: Women, Men and Ancien Régime Fiction (New York, 1995), 47.

  29. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 33.

  30. Lucretius, Nature of the Universe, 45.

  31. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 32.

  32. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1977 [1975]), 94.

  33. Cf. Morson and Emerson's useful translation “fan out” (Rethinking Bakhtin, 24) and Liapunov's “radiate” (Philosophy of the Act, 60).

  34. See M.-Pierrette Malcuzynski, Entre-dialogues avec Bakhtin: Ou, Sociocritique de la (dé)raison polyphonique (Amsterdam, 1992), 73.

  35. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 59, 65.

  36. See Anne Deneys-Tunney, Ecritures du corps (Paris, 1992), 7.

  37. Michel de Certeau, L'Invention du quotidien (Paris, 1990), 48.

  38. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 9.

  39. Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago, 1990), 2.

  40. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 44.

  41. See Niklas Luhmann and Peter Fuchs, Reden und Schweigen (Frankfurt a.M., 1989).

  42. See Antonio Gómez-Moriana, Discourse Analysis as Sociocriticism: The Spanish Golden Age (Minneapolis, 1993): “Since any statement presupposes more than it says, Voloshinov calls the use of language an enthymeme” (138).

  43. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 45.

  44. Morson and Emerson, eds., Rethinking Bakhtin, 23; see also “in hindsight” (22) and “keeping in mind Bakhtin's other writings in his first and second periods” (26).

  45. Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque (New York, 1995), 11.

  46. P. N. Medvedev and M. M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. Albert J. Wehrle (Cambridge, MA, 1985 [1928]), 12.

  47. Michael Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (London and New York, 1990), 114.

  48. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 73.

  49. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993), 53.

  50. Lloyd, “Adulteration and the Nation,” 74.

  51. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 56.

  52. “Etymologies of the modern term begin with the Latin prosa, from prorsus, ‘straightforward,’ ‘direct,’ making prorsa oratio or prosa oratio or prosa, which means ‘a straightforward speaking without diversion or interruption, right through to the end of the period’”; Jeffrey Kittay and Wlad Godzich, The Emergence of Prose: An Essay in Prosaics (Minneapolis, 1987), 193.

  53. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 45.

  54. See André Belleau, Notre Rabelais (Montreal, 1990).

  55. Lucretius, Nature of the Universe, 109.

  56. Jean-François Chassay, L'Ambiguïté américaine (Montreal, 1995), 60.

  57. William Paulson, The Noise of Culture (Ithaca, 1988), 49.

  58. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 7.

  59. Ibid., 44.

  60. De Certeau, L'Invention du quotidien, 59-60.

  61. Russo, Female Grotesque, 189.

  62. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 43, 57-58, 41-42, 46.

  63. Rosen, Sur le grotesque, 14.

  64. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 40.

  65. See Peter Fenves, “Chatter”: Language and History in Kierkegaard (Stanford, 1993), 153.

  66. Lucretius, Nature of the Universe, 155.

  67. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 48, 40.

  68. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability, 226, 209.

  69. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 57.

  70. Emily Schultz, Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin and Linguistic Relativity (Madison, 1990).

  71. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 35.

  72. Rosen, Sur le grotesque, 21.

  73. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability, 209.

  74. As quoted in Fenves, “Chatter,” 153.

  75. Peter Sloterdijk, Zur Welt kommen—Zur Sprache kommen: Frankfurter Vorlesungen (Frankfurt a.M., 1988), 31-59.

  76. Aaron J. Gurjewitsch, “Höhen und Tiefen: Die mittelalterliche Grotesque,” in Mittelalterliche Volkskultur, trans. Mathias Springer (Munich, 1987), 277, 280.

  77. Tzvetan Todorov, “Dialogism and Schizophrenia,” in Arteaga, ed., An Other Tongue, 203-14, esp. 211.

  78. Arteaga, “An Other Tongue,” 20.

  79. Lloyd, “Adulteration and the Nation,” 92.

  80. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La Prose du monde (Paris, 1969), 193.

  81. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le Visible et l'invisible (Paris, 1964), 47.

  82. Bakhtin, Philosophy of the Act, 32, 50.

This essay takes several ideas from a paper presented at the August 1995 international conference “Bakhtine: La pensée dialogique” held in Cerisy-la-Salle, France. Those ideas, which at the time seemed quite reasonably expressed, are developed beyond recognition here.

All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Hitchcock (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Hitchcock, Peter. “The Grotesque of the Body Electric.” In Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words, edited by Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner, pp. 78-94. London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Hitchcock uses the biographical details of Bakhtin's physical deterioration and the amputation of his legs in an exploration of the possibilities of the grotesque inherent in the carnival.]

We must share each other's excess in order to overcome our mutual lack.

—Michael Holquist

I begin with Bakhtin's leg; or rather, its manifest absence. I will begin by singing Bakhtin's body electric, the materiality of his body and the body-image that, in true historico-allegorical fashion, move across the borders of theory and practice.1 I commence, therefore, with the practical experience of Bakhtin's body. Bakhtin, a consummate theorist of the body, begins with the unconsummated nature of his own tissue, a body that for most of his life painfully reminded him of its fleshly imperfections. From an early age Bakhtin suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone disease that can set light to nerve endings as easily as it can kill them. The disease takes a variety of forms but in its chronic manifestation it causes inflammation around the bones (especially the long bones of the arms and legs) and secondary infections that often require high doses of anti-biotics. Common symptoms when present include sinus tract drainage which often emits a foul odour, bony sequestra, and non-healing ulcers. Although much about Bakhtin's health remains somewhat murky, there is no doubt that osteomyelitis played a crucial role in the decision to amputate his right leg in 1938. People do not write about the body merely because their body appears in permanent revolution against them but one might take on the possibility that Bakhtin's excessive body, its grotesque order of pain, has a pertinent and permanent inscription in his theorization. By the time Bakhtin is considering the borders of answerability in Vitebsk, the osteomyelitis has spread to his left shin, a hip joint, and to his right hand (Clark and Holquist, 1984). His body, weakened by the relentless nature of the disease, then suffers from a bout of typhoid, which further inflamed the bone marrow in his right leg and, in 1921, required an operation. Clark and Holquist note:

As a result of the operation on his right leg, Bakhtin was subject to periodic inflammation of the hip joint, which flared up several times a year, giving him acute pain and high temperatures and obliging him to spend as much as a month or two in bed. The fever was so high that his wife had to change his bedshirt several times a night. The pain was so great that he conducted his classes while lying on a couch.

(Clark and Holquist, 1984: 51)

It is likely that the periodic inflammation addressed here was again a product of chronic osteomyelitis but was exacerbated by typhoid. In his correspondence, Bakhtin comments, ‘It was a very grave operation: they chiselled through my leg, across the hip, they even chiselled through my shin’.2 Within the architectonics of answerability Bakhtin is at least attempting to answer the painful demands of his flesh. He is the author, and what Other confronts him as he lays upon the couch? Much more, of course, can be said about the value of Bakhtin's body in history. In general I am interested in Bakhtin as ‘a constant meditator on the meaning of borders’ (Holquist, 1990: xix), but particularly where the borders of the body exceed themselves. Architectonics is not a simple compensation or displacement device for the wholeness that Bakhtin does not feel; it is, rather, an attempt to understand the logic of work in effecting wholeness. It is not a theory on the perfectability of ‘Man’ but a detailed exegesis on the will to construct a human differently. True, in the early philosophical manuscripts Bakhtin will often discover an aesthetic solution to what is properly a sociopolitical problem (itself perhaps an allegory of Bakhtin's misgivings about the solutions posed in terms of Soviet Marxism at the time), but even when he finds that the artist and art ‘as a whole create a completely new vision of the world, a new image of the world, a new reality of the world's mortal flesh’ this whole is not solace from the mortal world but a ‘new plane of thinking about the world’ (Bakhtin, 1990: 191).

Diseases work in mysterious ways. In 1924, Bakhtin returns to Leningrad because the severity of his illness disqualifies him from officialdom's definition of the physically able: he is awarded a state pension (second class) and is no longer required to work. The paradox of illness is that a great deal of the world's most significant art and thinking would not have been possible without it (and one should add that a socialist outlook towards disability—or ‘socialized’ medicine for those who wish to overlook what Marx would call the rational kernel for its mystical shell—has played an enduring role in this realm of possibility). While one could argue that authorial will will overcome any obstacle, Bakhtin's pension provided him with a vital resource: time. This is by no means an endorsement of Soviet social relations of the 1920s. The same system that produced state pensions threw Bakhtin in jail in January 1929 (as part of a general purge of intellectuals). Again, however, his body intervenes, as if its persecution was better than the state's. The effects of osteomyelitis killing his right leg were compounded by paraphrenitis in the kidneys. Thus, in June 1929 Bakhtin's condition was ‘upgraded’ to Category Two which rewarded him with a hospital bed rather than a prison cell. In addition to an appreciable campaign to release Bakhtin from the thrall of political persecution, Bakhtin himself sent an application to the Commissariat of Health for official confirmation of the severity of his illness (he believed at this time that he was to be sentenced to several years at the dreaded prison camp on the Solovetsky Islands—easily a one-way ticket for someone in his condition). In a somewhat apposite interpretation of Derrida's work on the Pharmakon as poison and cure, one could say that what was killing Bakhtin was also preserving him. He was sentenced to exile in Kustanai, Kazakhstan, which, while no holiday, greatly improved his chances of survival.

Of course, the major medical event in Bakhtin's life took place on 13 February 1938 in Savelovo. The osteomyelitis had become so severe that Bakhtin's right leg was amputated. He would use crutches or a stick for the rest of his life. But, more importantly, he would experience the borders of the body in a different way, as a zone of prosthesis and image. I would argue that if the concept of the cyborg is founded on the body's shadowy existence between its fictional and fleshly self, then this notion came to write itself into Bakhtin's very being. In Savelovo Bakhtin would begin his most significant statement of the body's function in art and life, his ‘dissertation’ on Rabelais. As he struggled with his own carnivalized body, Bakhtin writes one of the twentieth century's most provocative works on the culture of the body. The cyborg confronts the grotesque.

Bakhtin as cyborg? This will require some qualification. The cyborg remains a symptom more than a reality—a concept with enough liminal being to provide both radical critical possibilities and conservative techno-determinist appropriations. We can, on the one hand, celebrate the cyborg for its guerilla epistemology because, in challenging dualisms of various kinds in the representation of the body, it explodes some of the trusted ‘truths’ of contemporary social formations (this, indeed, has been its particular allure for a developing corporeal feminism, of which more below). On the other hand, the cyborg embodies (sometimes literally) a deeply problematic thesis about the role of advanced technology with ‘actually existing’ transnational capitalism so that its very status as bodily enhancement or interface of flesh and technology is the last frontier of social control (and who gets what form of cyborganic being is also a direct integer of brute economic power). For some, the contradictions of the cyborg are a badge of faith in the undecidability of the moment: it is a symptom, therefore, of the nervousness with our system. Yet one wonders whether theory cedes too much in representing the cyborg as an inevitable symptom and that what results from this fatalism with fantasy is to pre-programme the future, and indeed the body, with a logic that is itself an instantiation of corporate lore (like Ford's famous quip about a choice of colours for a car that had only one)? Rather than simply read the cyborg as an allegory about the perfectability of ‘Man’ gone wrong (say, ‘from thesis to prosthesis’), we will explore the contours of its counter-logic, the conditions of its knowledge for body politics. On one level, these will be read (as I have already suggested) in relation to the tortuous labours of the body for Bakhtin. On another, these conditions, while fashionably eliding the absolute, suggest why the human in the cyborg says ‘no’ to the corporate logic that demands its obeisance. They are the conditions, I will contend, of the grotesque in body, action, and mind. They are the embodiment of imperfections and of pain.

This, too, should be clarified, for one could easily argue that whatever the conditions of knowledge in the concept of the cyborg, good old plodding techno-capitalism can still make robots of us all. Yet this misses the point. It is not enough to locate the radical potential of the cyborg in its shadowy being, then go on to admit that, after all, cybernetic developments will occur under the aegis of corporate capital or not at all (this is precisely Donna Haraway's intervention in her ‘Manifesto for cyborgs’ (1985)—of which more below). The initial explorations of a properly cyborganic imagination (redolent, for instance, in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) pick up on a narrative of what makes a human, human, and link this to a horrific encounter of nature and science. The discovery is not the truism that when science plays god ‘Man’ is denatured (although the progressive politics in and around the formulation should not be disparaged): the crux of the matter is whether greater understanding of what makes a human, human, under historically specific conditions actually renders the domination of techno-capitalism impossible. In this sense (and sense perception is part of the argument), the cyborg is not the scene of carefully contrived discursive duplicity, but a ‘real contradiction’ with socio-economic portent. Could it be that the paradox of progress is that Marx's famous gravedigger of capitalism will be a machine-human composite who putatively at least was meant to be the ideal worker?3

I want to connect (or, more appropriately, reattach) Bakhtin's body to his concept of the grotesque in a way that inflects the determinate being of the cyborg. The subtext of the critique is the link between Bakhtin's experience of the liminality of his own body and the thesis of grotesquery that is coterminous with it. The symptom here is not the mere correspondence of biographical details (Bakhtin's lifelong battle with osteomyelitis) with certain theoretical formulations (the grotesque as excessive body and as an imaginative plane), but rather that Bakhtin's body is inextricably implicated in the grotesquery he elucidates in a way that emphasizes the material conditions of the body's question for the social. Indeed, it is the sublation of a conventional theory/practice split that makes Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque a vital contribution to materialist thought.4 Bakhtin (like Mary Shelley in this regard) explores the condition of the cyborg without ever naming it. And this is where the imaginative field of the grotesque, of the monstrous, of the excessively human, has its revenge on exploitative forms of rationality.

The first being to be termed a cyborg was a white rat in the 1950s, a fact with enough symbolic overtones to make an argument in itself.5 What is a cyborg? Conventional wisdom tells us that it is shorthand for a cybernetic organism, an expanding and problematic interfacing of human and machine. It can also represent the constructed wholes of separate organic systems. In recent years the definitions have multiplied which, while it has greatly expanded the borders of 'Borg culture, has tended to blur its potential for socio-critique. For instance, since we all interact with machines of various complexity, humanity is always already cyborgian by some accounts (all humans are ‘soft’ cyborgs or low-tech cyborgs). If one reduces cyborgian phenomena to the fact that machines are extensions of the self, then the specificities of integration may well be elided, as well as the more nefarious logic that makes the self an extension of the machine (the factory system within industrialization has consistently rationalized the latter). Let us say that the cyborg as a sign, as an arena of (class) struggle (to borrow from Bakhtin/Voloshinov) constructs its own hierarchies of significance according to ideologies of power, but these, from low-tech to advanced, do not define the real foundations that are their genesis. The plethora of definitions, therefore, should not obviate the need to analyse what conditions their possibility, including their function as ideology. The original development of cyborgs was fostered by the needs of the military-industrial complex: the quest for a sophisticated ‘man-machine weapon’ was as much a staple of the Cold War as it is of more recent high-tech ‘low intensity’ conflict (the representation of the Gulf War as a video game on CNN is, for the Pentagon, a triumph of cybernetic systems development). Of course, not all cyborganic development is military, but even otherwise benign technical advances in replacement body parts move in symbiosis with military conflict (‘refinements’ in anti-personnel mines have clearly intensified research and development in prosthetic limbs, whose fleshly counterparts are torn asunder in ever-increasing numbers from Vietnam to Afghanistan). The cyborg as killing machine crops up all over popular culture (Terminator, American Cyborg, etc.): this kind of cyborg is the Id of the military mindset, the ‘what if’ of technology's destructive self. On one level then, the grotesque cyborg is merely the name for obscene violence.

I have suggested that the chief representation of cyborg reality, however, is its function as symptom and, if we are to understand Bakhtin's profound contribution to the field of the cyborganic, this must be explained. There are many reasons why Donna Haraway's ‘A manifesto for cyborgs’ (1985) has become a classic statement on cyborg Being, and they all in varying ways advance key theses on the cyborg as symptom.6 First, cyborg politics are posited as a powerful rhetorical device. There is an endearing playfulness in Haraway's approach which is, as she notes, girded by an ‘ironic political myth’ (1985: 65) that the cyborg inspires. How so? The cyborg exists in a form of nether-world between fiction and reality, just as its subjectivity is caught in the contradictory hybridity of machinery and flesh. What Haraway does is pose this border being as a symptom of specific political dilemmas. To read the cyborg, in and of itself, as the solution to political problems in feminism or socialism (the subtitle of Haraway's essay is ‘Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s’) is to misunderstand her ironic stance. Thus, when Haraway boldly declares that ‘the cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics’ (1985: 66), it is irony that saves the formulation from crude technological determinism. The stress is on a Being at or beyond ‘our’ normative Selves. And, as Haraway emphasizes, one must come to terms with the chimerical components of our existence if we are to reformulate a properly radical political agenda.

The manifesto's second intervention is an extension of the first, for to embrace the rhetorical strategy of foregrounding the cyborg as an historical agent is to confront the possibility that its transgressive boundaries might form a political space for new tactical alliances. Obviously, the danger in this move is that the cyborg may be interpreted realistically rather than ironically and that activists may be dutifully miffed that the cyborg elbows its way into the political arena as a substitute for the delineated struggles of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality (to name just a few of the areas of social conflict with their own theories of ontology and politics). Nevertheless, in demonstrating the logic of what she calls the ‘informatics of domination’ (1985: 79), a logic that is predicated on oppressive dualisms or false dichotomies, Haraway shows how the advent of the cyborg offers new combinatory potentials in oppositional work. Again, for the uninitiated the difficulty is in seeing beyond the shorthand cyborg of popular culture (the T1000 of Terminator 2: Judgment Day seems to offer only an ontology of death) yet even then the popular embodies elements of the counter-narrative that Haraway is at pains to elucidate. The second intervention, then, proposes the cyborg as a heuristic device: it is a way to learn about the forms of politics possible at the end of the twentieth century.

The most important reason for the continued relevance of Haraway's strategy vis-à-vis cyborganic politics is in its lessons for feminism's critique of science. There are many other examples of feminist polemic against the patriarchal structures of supposedly neutral scientific thought (including the work of Sandra Harding, whose debate with Haraway over the status of the cyborg for feminist politics would provide a separate argument in itself), but few have so deftly raised the banner of feminism against the scientific rationalism busily fulfilling promises of an avaricious world system. True, Haraway has since significantly qualified her initial statements (which is as much a register of the dangers of irony as anything else), but her analysis of how cyborganic systems directly impact and are transformed by woman as subject remain a prescient critique of science's failure in the modern era. Technology may offer the cyborg, so says Haraway, but it cannot determine in advance all the forms of hybridity that its liminal being may make possible and this can be a touchstone for feminism's transgression of woman's objectification in scientific ‘development’.

What is feminist about Haraway's intervention is also what is Bakhtinian in this instance. First, cyborg imagery is deployed to displace the obsession of reproduction with regeneration: the bio-politics of birthing are carnivalized by the non-originary theses (or prostheses) of cyborganic being. Clearly, the psychoanalytic valorization of the Name of the Father must be continually challenged; Haraway's attempt is through the transgressive body boundaries of the cyborg with its hope of a ‘monstrous world without gender’ (1985: 67). The prerequisites of this monstrous world are the conditions of the monstrous body. Bakhtin suggests that ‘the grotesque body is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 517). True, Bakhtin will often use images of procreation and birthing to elaborate ‘becoming’, but only because in his reading of Rabelais these are instances of the body opening out. For Bakhtin, as for Haraway, the body does not end with the skin. The cyborg exists in Bakhtin to the extent that becoming is the very ground of augmentation and reconstruction.

Haraway's feminist challenge is also Bakhtinian in the way it elaborates a constructive strategy of responsibility. Arguing away from models of victimhood that pose technology and science as smothering human agency, Haraway instead offers feminism the challenge of embodied power. While the cyborg is an image of the pleasure of confused bodily boundaries, a cyborg body politic stresses responsibility in the articulation of such transgression. Certainly this is not answerability in the precise terms that Bakhtin elaborates it. Yet Bakhtin, I believe, would not have found Haraway's stress on the agency of the transgressive body anathema to his philosophy of the deed. According to his architectonics of answerability, Cartesian dualism fails to understand the body's axiological dependence on the Other in constituting value. Bakhtin develops this principle in relation to aesthetic acts, but it is clear that the material realization of the body as value-constituting makes answerability a general concept of challenging the idea of the body as a monad. For Bakhtin, crossing normative notions of body boundaries implies ethical responsibility: it is the mode in which agency is situated.

The strongest affinity between Haraway's ironic vision of cyborg politics and Bakhtinian critique is the stress on a radical heterogeneity in discourse and language. Haraway ends her argument by suggesting that, ‘Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia’ (Haraway, 1985: 106). We recall that Bakhtin used heteroglossia to refer to the contextual specificity of meaning in the utterance, the radical heterogeneity of the utterance in its centrifugal and centripetal elements. Its infidelity is not to meaning, then, but to any abstract systematicity in linguistics or indeed formalism in discursive critique. Both Haraway's and Bakhtin's interpretations of heteroglossia can be challenged for their extravagance. For instance, clearly the pleasures of heteroglossia (responsible or not) do not in themselves negate the powerful cyborgian imagery in the informatics of domination. And the more one states the positive inclinations of heteroglottic border-crossing, the more one risks reinventing a dualism vis-à-vis monoglossia. The weaknesses in Bakhtin's argument are legion: from the tendency to hypostatize the novel as heteroglossia's most privileged aesthetic form, to the confusing shifts between heteroglossia as the ‘normal’ condition of languages and as the historically specific instance of one language in particular. There are counter-arguments available, but let me stress the positive confluence of the concept in Haraway and Bakhtin. If we accept the boundary-breaching condition of cyborg ontology, the task is continually to concretize the context of this event. Bakhtin allows for all kinds of possible influences on the ‘eventness’ of heteroglossia's distillation in discourse and the I/Other relations of subjectivity. Surely cybernetics is a science of contexts in this light—an approach to the field of connectivity and integration in differing environments? What the problem of the cyborg demands in Haraway's rhetorical ‘dream’ is an infidelity to normative claims or rationality as currently construed, for the latter fail, socially and philosophically, to understand the ways in which the body and body image get articulated in heteroglottic profusion. I will mention two of these aspects here: the grotesque and the phantom limb.

The body in revolt is often a revolting body. The grotesque is not a tribute to the embodiment of technological will, but rather it is the scene of its mise en abyme. The body constantly contradicts the pretensions and ideologies of perfection in its defecation, sneezing, farting, belching, and bleeding. Bakhtin is impressed by Rabelais's celebration of these bodily functions because they simultaneously transgress and destabilize the ideologies of the medieval world order. If god made ‘Man’ in his own image, then he must have had a sense of humour. Just as Rabelais characterizes the belly laughter of a world turned upside down and inside out, so religion is made to see the comedy in its bodily imagery (this takes many forms in Bakhtin's critique, but the discussion of the grotesque in religious relics, particularly those of dismembered bodies of the saints, is pertinent in this regard). The body's materiality, especially the materiality of what Bakhtin calls its ‘lower stratum’, conspires against the codes of order and rationality issued by its ‘head’. It wants nothing of ‘discipline’ and ‘regularity’; it prefers, inestimably, the excessive processes of waste, procreation, and decay.

But of course, the body needs its head, even if we know that it can survive without it (for instance, in madness and in the cyborgian stasis of the braindead on life support). What interests Bakhtin in the grotesque, however, is its meaning within Renaissance thought, principally as an index of ‘Man's’ inscription in a much broader cosmology, one where the body is in the world and not separate from it, one in which the body is open to organic processes that ‘hold no terror for him’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 365). To laugh at our bodily imperfections is not base or gross in Bakhtin's theory of the grotesque: it is an affirmation of our extraordinary material being.

I will not detail all of the elements of the grotesque that Bakhtin outlines, but several are clearly appropriate to the present discussion. First, the grotesque life of the body is not a pure negativity but a warning about any system of thought that renders the body either abstract or easily perfectable. The process or ‘becoming’ of the body resists its codification: it answers hypostatization with hyperbole, excellence with excrement. For the French humanists of the Renaissance the body provided endless fascinations—even Rabelais performed a public dissection to underline a non-disciplinary philosophical disposition in the medical science of the time. Indeed, the body itself is simultaneously a sign of ‘interchange’ and ‘interorientation’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 317) with the world, but also a catalyst for radical thinking about that world. Clearly, this is a lesson that Bakhtin wants to be read into his world, a place where the righteous and the regulative were in danger of sucking the spontaneous and festive from a revolutionary spirit. For those, however, who willy-nilly make the carnivalesque and the grotesque transhistorical categories, it is worth reiterating that they are both radically historicized in Bakhtin's conception. Ever attentive to the material conditions of thought and practice, Bakhtin will even go as far as suggesting that Rabelais's Pantagruel inflects the weather that accompanied its genesis: a heatwave and drought in which ‘men actually walked with their mouths open’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 326). He later remarks that a plague, too, marks the eventness of this tome because this, like the drought, had awakened the people's ‘cosmic terror and eschatological expectations’ and Rabelais's book was ‘a merry answer to these fears and pious moods’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 339). My point here is to draw attention to the material conditions of the production of Bakhtin's own book. But while other studies have focused on the carnivalizing tendencies of Bakhtin's intervention vis-à-vis the terrors and errors of Stalinism, I would argue that the material and materialist manifestations of this work can also be understood in terms of the evidence of Bakhtin's own body.

For instance, on several occasions in Rabelais and His World Bakhtin lists key elements of grotesque imagery in male speech: ‘Wherever men laugh and curse, particularly in a familiar environment, their speech is filled with bodily images. The body copulates, defecates, overeats, and men's speech is flooded with genitals, bellies, defectations, urine, disease, noses, mouths, and dismembered parts’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 319). Most of these elements are either the site or the process of bodily functions but two in particular need further explanation. The body is naturally prone to disease either as a potential or as an embodiment from birth (something genetically prescribed), but if you subtract disease from these elements few would argue that the body represented would be abnormal. To put this a slightly different way: the inclusion of disease disrupts the series of bodily attributes—it is not parallel in the way that a nose or urine may be. A similar point could be made about ‘dismembered parts’ which, again, is something done to the body and does not stand in the same relation of bodily functions as say a belly or defecation. This occurs again later in Bakhtin's argument where he suggests, ‘In the oral popular comic repertory we also find everywhere the reflection of the grotesque concept of the body: specific obscenities, debasing parodies, abuse and cursing, and dismembered parts’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 354). Here the false series is even more glaring: the list begins by ennumerating forms of comic repertory but ends with a subject of that repertory. Why did this particular component of grotesque anatomy suggest itself?

Diseases, of course, play a key function in grotesquery. It is not just the way they can deform the human body (although that is of great interest here), but also that they are the body's classic manifestation of fallibility. This does not make Bakhtin fatalistic; on the contrary, what he admires in Rabelais is that he interprets disease as an opening out of the body, that disease regularly and insistently transgresses the body's boundaries with the world, integrating it with the lively complexities of an entire cosmology. For this reason, Bakhtin is particularly taken with the philosophy of the ‘Hippocratic anthology’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 357) which elaborates the symptoms of life and death along the same continum. When we say that someone is living with disease rather than dying from it we are stating a cornerstone of Renaissance cosmology and the grounds for Bakhtin's rearticulation of it. To excise Bakhtin's theorization from his experience of his own body seems to me to misunderstand profoundly his reading of the carnivalesque and grotesque. Bakhtin's body was also the ‘epitome of incompleteness’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 26).

To the extent that every writer's corpus is dictated by his corpus there is nothing particularly inflammatory in invoking the materiality of Bakhtin's body, yet it has a specific prescience given his unique contribution to our sense of the body's possibilities in culture and politics. Evidence suggests that Bakhtin may have developed osteomyelitis from as early as nine years of age. From that point he could no longer exercise or indeed play with other children. For those who marvel at the fact that he read Kant's ‘Kritik der reinen Vernunft’ at the age of twelve one might add that his remarkable self-education was due in part to the isolation that came with his disease.7 As I have mentioned, some bouts of the disease were more debilitating than others but, typically perhaps, the disease had positive and negative valences. Bakhtin's relative immobility and official status as a disabled person allowed him inordinate time to read and write. With his wife, voluntarily or not, reduced to the role of servant and secretary, Bakhtin could spend days on end in fervent contemplation. Yet it is important to keep in mind that there were as many days of excruciating pain and no day when a manifestation of grotesquery did not threaten what passed for a modicum of well-being. As I look at a photograph of Bakhtin bedridden with osteomyelitis in March 1930 (Clark and Holquist, 1984: 144), just before his exile to Kazakhstan, I am reminded of what Bakhtin calls a ‘remarkable excerpt’ from the ‘Prognostics’ of the Hippocratic anthology:

In acute diseases it is necessary to make the following observations: first of all as to the patient's face: does it resemble or not the face of persons in good health, and especially does it resemble itself? For the latter sign should be considered the best, and the lack of this resemblance presents the greatest danger. The face will then offer the following aspect: sharp nose, sunken eyes and hollow temples, ears cold and taut, the ear-lobes twisted, the skin on the forehead taut and dry, the color of the face greenish, dark or leaden.

(Bakhtin, 1984: 358)

Bakhtin uses this example to illustrate the Hippocratic focus on the face as an integer of ‘death's proximity or remoteness’. It is hard to find a photograph of Bakhtin where this drama of life and death is not drawn across his face. After his leg was amputated, Bakhtin was quite proud of the fact that he could move around on crutches at least as much (or as little) as before. There was also an attempt to fit Bakhtin for a prosthesis. Unfortunately, because the amputation was so high on his leg, almost to the groin itself, he did not have enough stump to wear a prosthesis comfortably. Indeed, the pain of using a false leg was almost as great as the pain provided by its fleshly counterpart.8 Even the use of crutches took its toll. The cartilage in his left leg was progressively weakened by his dependence on it and made even assisted movement a painful experience.

I have suggested that there is a strong connection between Bakhtin's health and his approach to the grotesque. Bakhtin begins his work on Rabelais around the time of the amputation of his leg, and to underline the significance of this I want to elaborate more of his right leg's afterlife in the theorization of that tome. To do this I want to borrow from what we know of the phantom limb. Briefly, the phantom limb refers to an experience of a body part after its removal, an experience that confirms that humans live with an image of their body's exteriority—their body's existence in a specific time and space. The phantom limb is experienced by almost all people who have endured the amputation of moving, functioning, extremities (the most notable exceptions are young children and the mentally impaired). It can also be experienced by people who have had internal organs removed. Typically, the phantom appears almost immediately after amputation, but it can take up to two years to manifest itself. It is important to note that the phantom limb is an image of what was amputated, not a copy of it. Indeed, the body phantom is often distorted, as Elizabeth Grosz explains:

The phantom is invariably shorter than the limb; often the proximal portions of the phantom are missing; it is commonly perceived as flatter than the healthy limb; it usually feels light and hollow; and the perception of its mobility is extremely impaired … losing its ability to perform finer, more nuanced acts of dexterity which the intact limb was able to undertake.

(Grosz, 1994: 71)

The phantom limb is the scene of a trenchant cognitive confusion: the reality of the stump is co-extensive with the reality of the phantom; that is, one indicates a manifest absence in the same time/space relations as that which indicates a manifest presence. Thus, the phantom limb asks the first question of grotesquery: where does your body end?

When Bakhtin writes of the grotesque open character of the body he is not just reading a wild sixteenth-century narrative: he is articulating the coordinates of his own experience of the liminality of flesh. If he may be deemed nostalgic for a certain symbolic destruction of authoritarian officialdom, then he might also be combating a more personal nostalgic manifestation in his present. Interestingly, the phantom limb expresses a desire for the complete body that is not, but this is not a thesis, or prosthesis, that neatly fits Bakhtin's outlook. Indeed, if he experienced a phantom limb, he embraced its shadowy existence, as if the horror of his own body were the positive symbol of the grotesque incarnate. Let me be clear on this: there is no evidence extant in which Bakhtin discusses either his health or his body in any great detail. What I am suggesting is that the imagery of the grotesque body he elucidates is symptomatic of imagery with a real foundation in his existence.

Grotesque imagery, like the phantom limb, exists in distortion: it only provides emotional effect by virtue of its approximation. Rather than wallow in the fact that disease had carnivalized his body, Bakhtin takes up the issue of disease for its associative effects. Ridicule through the invocation of disease could be therapeutic with respect to disease; one could actually laugh in the face of death. There can be no doubt that osteomyelitis changed Bakhtin's body image even before his right leg was removed: even if you can forget someone else's pain, you cannot forget your own (I will return to the pertinence of pain in the conclusion). Bakhtin made this body image the ground for a life-affirming embrace of the popular and the festive in the social construction of everyday life. For some this may sound like an obvious compensation for the hardships and downright gloominess of Bakhtin's life, but this, I think, misses the point. The body image and the phantom limb which marks its reconstitution are both grotesque images of a chthonian potential, if not reality—the after-images of a struggle with mortality that many aspects of contemporary culture now insistently desensitize, as if the active liminality of the flesh is a ruse of technology. This is where Bakhtin's experience of prosthesis must be read against the grain of normative notions of the cyborganic self. The body image is not just a zone of personal restoration, even if the ideology of the whole, the complete, the autonomous body remains hegemonic in particularly Western concepts of selfhood. Indeed, what the latter attempts to mystify through personification, the grotesque displaces through socialization. For Bakhtin, the ‘material bodily principle’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 19) is embodied by a people, those whose renewal can only occur collectively. It is this principle of sociality that needs to be constantly reconnected to cyborganic critique. Of course, there is no simple formula for the socialization implied here. Bakhtin himself too often subjected the principle to typification—as in his by now infamous reference to the ‘senile, pregnant hags’ of the Kerch terracotta collection—an image that Mary Russo (1986, 1994) has quite rightly challenged and reaccentuated in provocative ways. It is no coincidence that engendering has not only challenged the sexism of Bakhtin's world-view, but the grotesque itself rearticulates the feminist imperative in deconstructing the ‘man-made’ interface of the cyborg as a wholly male Übermensch. In this sense, the grotesque of the body electric is an anxious zone of engagement about imaging the social not as a site in which the normative defines the aberration (as patriarchies have often deigned to mark off the feminine), but as a contestatory space. This understanding is why corporeal feminism has provided some of the most provocative critiques of socialized bodies, including cyborgs. The dismembered body in pain is the mise-en-scène of a social paroxysm about what counts as equally human.

Beginning with his discourse on the value of the human body in history (when his osteomyelitis was already acute) and culminating in his extraordinary work on Rabelais (when, as we have noted, Bakhtin enters the world of the abject amputee), Bakhtin explores in detail the process of grotesquery and the imperative coordinates of the Other. The discourse of the body itself allows a topographic approach to the inner workings of the I/Other nexus. But we must keep in mind that all this talk of body image and phantom limb, crucial elements of grotesque epistemology, is not a paean to metaphoricity, as if the volatile body is only a discursive effect or an aesthetic exuberance for monstrosity: the political space traced by grotesquery is one in which the social, the psychic, and the discursive vectors of power are enmeshed in a determinate, and overdetermined, materiality. Here we may begin to specify dialogism somewhat differently from the social space of the utterance. If we interpret the dialogic as centrifugal interactivity, then the grotesque as transgressive dialogizes both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal. The erupting surfaces of the human body are signs of its unstable or porous existence (as Grosz notes, the ‘detachable, separable parts of the body … retain something of the cathexis and value of a body part even when they are separated from the body’ (Grosz, 1994: 81)), but they are also the manifestation of the relations between its inner and outer ‘selves’. The divisions of the Self, its exclusions and its denials, are the social imprimatur of how it gets articulated, put together, outwardly and inwardly. They are representations not only of social determination but social ambivalence. Indeed, our excitement with the prospect of cyborganic politics has much to do with the ambivalence it entails, with the Janus-faced propensity of interconnectivity. As Russo (1994) astutely points out, the grotesque has a crucial role in the discourse of risk-taking: the error or aberration is a realm of possibility (certainly, this is one way we might understand the pathos and deep irony of Shelley's ‘monster’, as a literal embodiment of the risk of creation). As such, grotesque performances are those that challenge the normative by invoking not only the lower bodily stratum, but an array of practices that foreground and oppose the disciplinary zeal of social hierarchies. We know that modes of socialization create aberration and that the body tenaciously fights the surveiller/punir system of domination that Foucault explores. What is less understood, however, is the ambivalence inscribed in opposition by the mode of the excessive in grotesquery itself. The revolting body is not necessarily the body of revolt.

This, I believe, is a salutary reminder to the doyens of excess, particularly those who celebrate the liberatory prospect of augmentation. The ambivalence of the cyborg is also a question about whether the ‘replaceable you’ is always already a ‘disposable you’. What has often been over-enthusiastically dubbed ‘progress’ in the twentieth century has meant a plethora of prosthetic body parts where alternative modes of socialization might have told a different story (again, the replaceable parts that substitute for the limbs ripped off by landmines do not challenge the culture of violence symbolized by the landmines, but compensate it, appease it). The cyborg was conceived by the military-industrial complex as a more competent killing machine (precisely the symptom most celebrated in its cultural projections—The Terminator, Robocop, and to some extent, Aliens). Individual societies may now breathe a sigh of relief that mutually assured destruction (MAD) did not come to pass. The problem remains that dominant forms of cyborg possibility recode the irrationality of progress as an ineluctable discourse of increased efficiency. The intervention of the grotesque does not end this cycle of apoplexy, but it does raise the stakes in cyborganic critique by continually questioning the logic of body formation, production, and reproduction. For every duplication as sameness, grotesquery offers duplication as difference and disjunction. The grotesque cyborg is one that refuses its own discourse of perfectability and the idealism of transcendence by coming to terms with and questioning the material limits on ‘existence’ (just as Baty recognizes the sham of cyborg socialization in Blade Runner—androids are pre-programmed to expire, just like medicine, food, and almost every electrical appliance you could care to name). When Haraway uses the oft-quoted formulation ‘I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess’, she articulates, in a profound way, the logic of discrepant cyborganics. The grotesque of the body electric is the place where the normative is undone and undoes itself; it is also the place where the power to make is also the power to make otherwise.

I began with Bakhtin's leg as a way to link grotesquery to the cyborganic and I want to close by noting the power of pain in formulating oppositional critique. Why? Bakhtin, I would argue, does not take his mind off the pain of his osteomyelitis by writing; rather, the pain of his degenerative disease is written into his formulation of the grotesque. In Elaine Scarry's brilliant analysis, The Body in Pain (1985), pain itself is explored as a manifest liminality, one that conjures both aversion (pain is something one fights) and a double-sense of self and external agency (the body fighting itself and being disciplined from without). Significantly, the sense of pain has no external object, a fact that leads Scarry into a recondite critique of its contrastive apoetheosis, imagination (which always has objects, even when imaginary objects, as its projected correlative). In his early work on the aesthetic, Bakhtin has learned the lesson of his body's inconstancy, but turns this into a theory of externality, or exotopy and outsidedness. Reading Scarry's analysis, one begins to see the logic of pain for Bakhtin's own theorization. Bakhtin notes:

When I project myself into another's suffering, I experience it precisely as his suffering—in the category of the other, and my reaction to it is not a cry of pain, but a word of consolation or an act of assistance. Referring what I have experienced to the other is an obligatory condition for a productive projection into the other and cognition of the other, both ethically and aesthetically. Aesthetic activity proper actually begins at the point when we return into ourselves, when we return to our own place outside the suffering person, and start to form and consummate the material we derived from projecting ourselves into the other and experiencing him from within himself.

(Bakhtin, 1990: 26; original emphasis)

In the thrall of pain, Bakhtin realizes that pure identification with the Other is a fiction (no one can fully experience his pain), and that the aesthetic begins with an axiological understanding of the Other as separable, and formatively so, in the production of aesthetic meaning. Pain, ironically, becomes the way to explain the conditions of the object-filled world of I/Other relations, the cognitive flux of the imagination. The aspect of negation crucial to pain is also constitutive of popular festive imagery in the book on Rabelais. It is not that Bakhtin's bodily pain gets externalized in the extensive treatment of the carnivalizing body politics of others. I would say, however, that it is not a coincidence that the degenerative body (the body in pain, the decaying, dying body) is overreached by the becoming body (the body in a life-affirming festive mode, the restorative and revolutionary body in the marketplace of the popular). Pain is the absent presence in the odd occurrence of dismemberment in Bakhtin's lists. And pain, of course, with no objective correlative, exists in the phantom limb that would otherwise deny its possibility: ‘The object that has been destroyed remains in the world but in a new form of being in time and space; it becomes the “other side” of the new object that has taken its place’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 410). And thus, I would suggest, even in the heady world of clean, chrome prosthesis, in the bright lights of the cyborg for techno-science, we should look for the ‘other side’ of augmentation: the grotesque in the evidence of Bakhtin's leg.


  1. Strictly speaking, the ‘body electric’ is not cyborgian but, since Bradbury's short story, it has come to be interpreted as such. ‘I sing the body electric’ is borrowed from Whitman, whose exuberance for mesmerism included the notion that electricity might cure ailments of various kinds. In a strange way, the cyborg is moving back through history to this mode of understanding.

  2. Reference provided in personal correspondence with Galin Tihanov of Jesus College, Oxford. The pain associated with Bakhtin's osteomyelitis should not be underestimated. In his later years Bakhtin was taking painkillers by the handful.

  3. Of course, this chapter does not answer such a question. I would suggest, however, that there are elements to our bodily imperfections that define our agency in relation to capital. One does not have to be a latter-day Luddite to see that machines replace humans on the basis of more than simple efficiency in output, but because humans have an endearing weakness: they challenge structures of oppression.

  4. Obviously, I do not endorse Bakhtin's theorization tout court, not only because of some of the dubious engendering of the grotesque he deploys, but also because he is impatient with the uncanny, with the psychic aspects of grotesquery (again, these might be read as a symptom of his own condition). For more on this aspect of the grotesque, see Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1963). For a feminist critique of Bakhtinian grotesque that combines and transforms concepts of the grotesque body and the uncanny, see Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque (1994). For a detailed if somewhat dry un-festive exegesis on the grotesque, see Bernard McElroy, Fiction of the Modern Grotesque (1989).

  5. This fact is noted by Donna Haraway in her cogent introduction to Chris Hables Gray, (ed.) The Cyborg Handbook (1995). This is easily the most comprehensive collection on cyborganic phenomena to date, although other useful material will be noted below. The ‘white rat’ as cyborg is a staple of science fiction—see, for instance, the films Cyborg and Blade Runner where the term aptly describes authority's conception of cyborganic being.

  6. I will not attempt to summarize all the points that Haraway advances, although I am particularly interested in their ironic mode. Avid readers of Haraway know that there are pertinent differences in the versions of her manifesto—some conditioned by her exchanges with Sandra Harding over the status of science for feminism, others overdetermined by the changed circumstances of the socialist-feminist project in the years following Haraway's initial statement in 1985. See, Donna Haraway, ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s’ (1985: 65-107); edited and reprinted as ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the late twentieth century’, in Donna Haraway (1991).

  7. These and other details of Bakhtin's health have been provided for me by Nikolai Panjkov in personal correspondence. Panjkov has been extremely helpful in clarifying some of the mystery of Bakhtin's ailments. Much of this material is now available in Russian in the journal, Dialog/Karnaval/Kronotop, including Bakhtin's conversations with V. Duvakin and excerpts from his letters to Kagan and Pinsky. Presumably it will also form part of the Collected Works, which David Shepherd at the Bakhtin Centre in Sheffield, UK, is arranging to have translated.

  8. Again, these details emerge in correspondence with Panjkov. We know what happened to Bakhtin's leg. It would be interesting to discover the fate of his prosthesis. Tihanov commented to me that he has not yet seen a photograph of Bakhtin from the waist down after the amputation that clearly shows the results of his surgery. But of course, in my argument, in the realm of the Other one never sees the phantom limb anyway.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1984) Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Foreword by Krystyna Pomorska. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1990) Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Eds M. Holquist and V. Liapunov. Trans. and notes V. Liapunov. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Clark, Katerina and Holquist, Michael (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gray, Chris Hables (ed.) (1995) The Cyborg Handbook. London: Routledge.

Grosz, Elizabeth (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Haraway, Donna (1985) ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review, 80: 65-107.

Haraway, Donna (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Holquist, Michael (1990) ‘Introduction’ to Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Eds M. Holquist and V. Liapunov. Trans. and notes V. Liapunov. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. ix-xlix.

Kayser, Wolfgang (1963) The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Trans. Ulrich Weisstein. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

McElroy, Bernard (1989) Fiction of the Modern Grotesque. London: Macmillan.

Russo, Mary (1986) ‘Female grotesques: carnival and theory’, in Teresa de Lauretis (ed.), Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 213-39.

Russo, Mary (1994) The Female Grotesque. London: Routledge.

Scarry, Elaine (1985) The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Bernard-Donals (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Bernard-Donals, Michael. “Knowing the Subaltern: Bakhtin, Carnival, and the Other Voice of the Human Sciences.” In Bakhtin and the Human Sciences: No Last Words, edited by Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Michael Gardiner, pp. 112-27. London: SAGE Publications, 1998.

[In the following essay, Bernard-Donals draws upon Bakhtin's notions of carnival and subversion to explore “the impossible contradiction of writing what cannot be written” in postcolonial literature by historically marginalized and disempowered voices, and demonstrates the influence of Bakhtin's work on postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Kwame Anthony Appiah.]

After turning the pieces of the puzzle around and around many times and shuffling them this way and that, I see they fit. They outline a more or less coherent story, as long as one sticks strictly to anecdote and does not begin pondering what Fray Luis de Leon called ‘the inherent hidden principle of things’. … Where I find it impossible to follow … is what makes me think of it continually and weave and unweave it a thousand times; it is what has impelled me to put it into writing in the hope that if I do so, it will cease to haunt me.

—Mario Vargas-Llosa1

Let us stress in this the prophetic picture of complete destruction of the established hierarchy, social, political, domestic. It is a picture of utter catastrophe threatening the world. … [And yet this same destruction] also prepared a new, scientific knowledge of this world, which was not susceptible of free, experimental, and materialistic knowledge as long as it was alienated from man by fear and piousness and penetrated by the hierarchic principle. The popular conquest of the world … destroyed and suspended all alienation; it drew the world closer to man, to his body, permitted him to touch and test every object, examine it from all sides, enter into it, turn it inside out, compare it to every phenomenon.

—Mikhail Bakhtin2

In the 1980s, Gayatri Spivak made current in mainstream literary and cultural studies the term ‘subaltern’, referring to those subjects which occupy a position so marginal and whose voice is so fragmented in relation to a dominant culture and language that they are potentially forever silenced and spoken for by that dominant culture. Since then, the post-colonial branch of the cultural studies movement has been concerned with finding a way to give voice to the position of the subaltern because the subaltern's silence—or, to use Homi Bhabha's (1990) phrase somewhat out of context, the non-sense of liminality—proves to be the anomaly, the stutter, in the coherent narrative of a dominant culture's story. And it is the liminal voice that proves so compelling, and so potentially liberatory, to writers who find that they nevertheless cannot speak or write it.

The impossible contradiction of writing what cannot be written concerns me here, because it seems to me that Mikhail Bakhtin, in writing the manuscript that would eventually become Rabelais and His World (1984b), is attempting to provide a glimpse of that very same contradiction. How is it, he asks, that those on the margins of a culture, by speaking the unspeakable and performing the unperformable, can nevertheless symbolically transgress—and potentially rupture—that culture's formally instituted laws and paradigms? What forms would such a transgression take? One that runs against the grain of any formal quality that would give shape to our attempts to categorize them? Bakhtin's notion of carnival and subversion—with its attention focused on the micro-politics of sanctioned and undermining cultural forms, licit and illicit language, spoken and unspoken (but performed) utterance—can contribute in productive ways to the post-colonial debate over whether or not the subaltern has a voice and what shape that voice may take.

This chapter will speculate about ways to ‘hear’ the voice of the subaltern by plotting the coordinates of the questions about subalternity on a Bakhtinian chart. Specifically, I want to map how material circumstances prevent a subject from having a voice but nevertheless grant a licence for activity. It is activity that, because it goes unrecognized by the cultural body that would sanction it, forces those who misrecognize it to rearrange radically their way of seeing and interpreting that very cultural body. It is the possibility of a radical transformation of the ways a culture sees and understands the relations among its subjects that is the central contribution of a Bakhtinian notion of carnival to cultural studies and post-colonial theory.


Saul Zuratas, the central and yet oddly absent main character of Vargas-Llosa's El Hablador (translated, incorrectly to my ear, as The Storyteller rather than ‘the talker’), is remembered by the novel's narrator as highly unusual in both appearance and in his desire to know a culture not his own. ‘Slang words and popular catch phrases appeared in every sentence he uttered, making it seem as though he were clowning even in his most personal conversations’ (Vargas-Llosa, 1989: 9). This clownish man is nick-named ‘mascarita’ for the strawberry-coloured birthmark that covers one side of his face and for the absurdly red, wiry hair that stands on end at the top of his head, and he is, in every sense of the word, an outsider: he is from a smallish Peruvian town, the son of a convert to Judaism and in pursuit of a doctorate in anthropology that he will never finish. The narrator recounts mascarita's fascination with Kafka, with left politics, and with a group of native people from the Peruvian jungle uplands, the Machiguenga. Zuratas eventually disappears—it is said that he has gone on aliyah to Israel—and the narrator recalls a photograph taken in the Amazon forest of a Machiguenga storyteller, un hablador. This is a memory that is not a memory, for the narrator has neither seen the Machiguenga nor can he believe the possibility made real in the photographic image: Zuratas has himself become a Machiguenga hablador.

This possibility, however, is not the conundrum of the novel, nor is it the vexing problem of post-colonial studies. Those working with literatures and cultures outside of the Western tradition are certainly concerned with trying to name the particularities of those cultures, to understand the relation between one's culture, a culture that most often has been complicit in the marginalization of the indigenous one, and that ‘other culture’. But what one leaves Vargas-Llosa's novel with is not the sense that Zuratas has or has not become the Machiguenga storyteller from the photograph, or that mascarita has found a way to investigate one culture from the perspective of another in a satisfactory way; rather, one gets the sense that the narrator has made it all up to satisfy the haunting sense in his own mind that something has been lost, that Zuratas must be spoken for, and that the Machiguenga, those with whom Zuratas had been most fascinated and almost obsessed, would provide him his voice, all through the narrator's pen.

Whose voice is it that we hear in the alternating sections of the novel, some of which are told in the voice of the Western-educated narrator but some of which are told in the rhythms and—so we are led to believe—through the eyes of a Machiguenga storyteller? What I will be arguing in this chapter is that it is the voice of the first-world speaker—who in El Hablador is modelled after Vargas-Llosa himself: Western-educated, a member of the monied classes, a speaker of the language, in this case academy Spanish—but that the palpability of that voice should not necessarily be equated with the subaltern's voicelessness. For, what you see in Zuratas, mascarita, the grotesque, and what you see in the Machiguenga, the people who walk but who can only be heard through the language of anthropology (and of fiction) is the carnivalization and subversion—the limit and the excess—of the language of the West, of the novelist, and of mimetic representation itself.

In her essay, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1994), Gayatri Spivak answers her own question and says no, ‘the subaltern cannot speak’, because even an ad hoc attempt to speak in terms unsanctioned by those in control of state apparatuses—men, the wealthy or governing elite, members of class society—will necessarily be reintegrated into the narrative of culture only in terms of those sanctioned languages. What interests Spivak here are cases, first, like those of the narrator and of Zuratas before his disappearance, in which the marginal or subaltern voice is spoken for, and cases, secondly, like those of the Machiguenga, whose voice can only be listened for but never completely understood. In the first case, invoked by people like Sara Suleri (1992), Mae Henderson (1990), Kwame Anthony Appiah (1991) and, by implication, Tim Brennan (1990), first-world intellectuals see the subaltern collectively as those subject positions that fall outside the purview of the rule of law and economy and politics as representing a limit to both system and law. What lies beyond those limits is seen as a transgression, a site potentially free of the management and interpellation of the law. The problem is that in trying to recuperate the emancipatory potential of such locations, the lived experience of those who occupy such positions ‘serves as fodder for the continuation of another's epistemology’ (Suleri, 1992: 765). The subaltern becomes spoken for.

Spivak is interested, also, in the second case in which the subaltern, ‘subsistence farmers, unorganized peasant labor, the tribals and the communities of zero workers on the street or in the countryside’ (1994: 84), cannot be heard at all, in which she can be considered only the silence circumscribed by the voices of an interpretable text. This is what Homi Bhabha has called, in a different context, the articulation of colonial non-sense, ‘the momentous, if momentary, extinction of the recognizable object of culture in the disturbed artifice of its signification, at the edge of experience’ (Bhabha, 1990: 206). It is the stuttering, uncanny recognition of the photograph of a Machiguenga storyteller that leads the narrator of El Hablador to tell us about the clownish Mascarita, and wonder about the trajectory of the Machiguenga people who had allowed a white photographer to get that close. In this case, Spivak tells us, we listen for the subaltern but know that we will not hear, but we will nevertheless recognize something in the text-surrounded blankness; but as she warns us by invoking Derrida, such a search for the Other of history seems ‘to hide the relentless recognition of the Other by assimilation’ (Spivak, 1994: 89) to that very text. It really is only a momentary, affective understanding, if we can call it understanding at all. In this case the margin is always on the inside, it invades and corrupts the language of the first-world intellectual and of the rule of law, but its effect is disruptive, and it is, as some like Appiah have complained, far too textual to be noticed for very long in the face of poverty and lawlessness and exploitation and the rise of cultural forms that the intellectual doesn't notice because he can't read them (Appiah, 1991: 356-7).

Spivak gestures to a third alternative, of ‘speaking to’ rather than for the subaltern, not to represent her politically or represent her mimetically but to begin to articulate what renders her voice disruptive and momentarily visible. But there are two problems with that gesture that I want to move beyond here. First, it is only a gesture. Post-colonial studies have told us that ‘the inaccessible blankness circumscribed by an interpretable text is what a postcolonial critic of imperialism would like to see developed within the European enclosure as the place of the production of theory’ (Spivak, 1994: 89), and Appiah has suggested that we should be paying attention to forms not of novelistic production but to indigenous, hybrid ‘all-consuming visions of [a] less-anxious creativity’, works that are there not for a consumer or viewer but because ‘someone cared for its solidity; it is there because it will take us further than our feet will take us’ (Appiah, 1991: 357), further than traditional (that is to say, Western) reading will take us. Despite these gestures, however, most of the work since these essays were written in the late 1980s have been focused on Western art, Western literature, Western assimilation and refractions of non-Western cultural production, and even the work focused on non-Western texts has been done through western theoretical lenses—the text that surrounds Spivak's ‘blankness’ rather than the otherness, the blankness itself. Secondly, given the language of the Western intellectual and the invisibility of the position of the subaltern subject, what is heard beyond the limit of the sanctioned voice is always already assimilated by that voice.

If we take Spivak at her word, however, we would have to say that the subaltern voice is far from momentary, is far more sustained, than these data suggest, and is potentially just as visible in first-world texts as it is in those cultural forms whose formal nature intellectuals cannot begin to see. Appiah's example of the Yoruba figure, Man with a Bicycle, presents one alternative to the subsumption of the subaltern to Western idioms. That figure—of an African man holding the handles of a bicycle while walking alongside it—prompted James Baldwin, who was a member of a panel choosing pieces to be included for a 1987 show on African art at New York's Center for African Art, to say:

This is something. This has got to be contemporary. He's really going to town! It's very jaunty, very authoritative. His errand might prove to be impossible. … He is challenging something—or something has challenged him. He's grounded in immediate reality by the bicycle. … He's apparently a very proud and silent man. He's dressed sort of polyglot. Nothing looks like it fits him too well.

(cited in Appiah, 1991: 339)

The figure up-ends discussions of what is authentic and what is kitsch, what is national and what is transnational, because—suggests Appiah—of its immediacy. And its immediacy is what strikes Baldwin enough to remark upon the piece's jauntiness and upon the harlequinesque figure of the man—adorned, very clearly, with what is meant to be more or less traditional Yoruba headdress, but walking alongside one of those sturdy three-speed bicycles that have less to do with Yoruba tradition than they do with twentieth-century African and Asian urban transportation, and wearing clothes that just don't seem to fit. Man with a Bicycle does not mark the beginning of agency that is also its negation (the creation of a work that can only be consumed by the viewer). Instead, it marks the insertion of an agency that requires an entirely new set of criteria with which to understand why this work has the effect that it does, and what the material conditions of such an effect are that circumscribe this new activity. The same effect can be seen in El Hablador: as the sections written in the voice of the hablador accumulate, they become less confusing because the reader can pick up on the narrative devices indigenous to the text. But at the same time, as these sections accumulate, it becomes clear that the character, Saul Zuratas, and the storyteller are beginning to merge, and by the end of the novel it matters less who the speaker of these sections is than it matters how the Western narrator of the entirety of the novel/story has managed to provide the section with its presence and its effect. And its effect is similar to the one Man with a Bicycle had on James Baldwin. It forces a recognition of challenge, subversion, and an urgent need to resituate the position of the reader's subjectivity because standard language or interpretive tools or intellectual categories are being jammed by the dissonance—the subaltern voice—in the work itself.


It is just this dissonance that Bakhtin talks about in his book on Rabelais and carnival. The question I want to answer in this section and the next one is how the forced reorientation of the subjectivity of the reader on confronting works like El Hablador (and Man with a Bicycle) can be made more than an affective jolt and into something like an understanding that nevertheless recognizes the radical otherness of the work itself. And I want to answer it by noting that it is just this transition, from bodily play to discursive knowledge, from laughter and the overturning of sense to recognition and ethical activity, that is implicit in Bakhtin's tract on carnival, a fact valuable for cultural studies. What remains to be done is to find a way to make the effects of those intrusions more than simply palpable but understandable.

Bakhtin is interested in the way Rabelais's images ‘have a certain undestroyable nonofficial nature; … These images are opposed to all that is finished and polished’ (1984b: 3). One way to understand this passage is formally: what Bakhtin concerns himself with here, and in the chapters that follow on the carnivalesque, is the rough-hewn character of the images and the stories themselves. But unfinishedness more importantly has to do with the open-endedness of discourse, of the impossibility of naming once and for all the other in a discourse, and of having spoken the final word, of finishing a conversation or story. This is the sense that is most closely related to notions of subalternity, and which can help us to understand the vexing problem of a novel like El Hablador or a work like Man with a Bicycle, because unfinishedness is related to the more or less unstated (or rather, Bakhtin's less than adequately theorized) understanding of social change through discursive exchange.

When, in his discussion of remnants of the grotesque during the Renaissance, Bakhtin uses the term interior infinite, he is referring to what he calls the ‘important discovery’ of a subjectivity that has ‘depth, complexity, and inexhaustible resources’ (1984b: 44). A speaker gets a sense of this complexity when she attempts to address herself to someone. In order for someone to speak, she must construct for herself a set of characteristics that ‘fix’ the other person, to give her a name with which to ‘know’ her. She must also try to name herself, so that she is able to sense how she might be understood for that other. But neither name nor story fixes the subject, because the person creating the name cannot occupy the place of the other, and in fact cannot fully understand the complexities of her own location either. The result is what Bakhtin called an ‘excess of vision’, an excess that is linked, in El Hablador, to ‘what Fray Luis de Leon called “the inherent principle of things”’ (Vargas-Llosa, 1989: 241), the result of an attempt to write a coherent story that conscientiously ignores those pieces of the puzzle that simply do not fit.

It's what does not fit in any act of naming or speaking that leads Spivak away from being sanguine about the possibilities for the subaltern voice to be included in what Ken Bruffee, in the context of writing instruction, has called the ‘conversation of [hu]man kind’ (1984: 635). Even in the books on the connection between ideology and language, Bakhtin's interlocutors, Medvedev and Voloshinov, have a difficult time theorizing how ‘every ideological structure [and language is the ideological structure par excellence] refracts the generating socioeconomic reality, and does so in its own way’ (Bakhtin and Medvedev, 1985: 16), in part because at this point in their understanding of language they were hard pressed to see how the failure adequately to name did anything but impede agency. But if, as Bakhtin in the Rabelais book suggests, the act of speaking produces an excess or unspeakable (perhaps unspoken) sign, then the act of speaking is unfinished in the sense that the marginal or marginalized or ambient sign can itself be perhaps not heard but certainly reintegrated into the subsequent utterance. But because it is not part of the ‘official version’ of the utterance, it is very much potentially destabilizing of it in measurable ways. It isn't just that a carnival discourse, the unofficial and unsanctioned undermining of official language, is potentially disruptive and always unfinished because of its excessive nature. Language itself, even in its official version, excludes and marginalizes aspects of being that return to haunt that official version both politically and aesthetically. Carnival acts as a wedge that potentially opens up a space in which we are apt to catch a glimpse of excess.

The forum in which we do the work of investigating just this carnival aspect of any utterance is the panoply of lived life. In Rabelais, Bakhtin goes so far as to suggest that there is what he calls a ‘two-world condition’ in lived life. Bakhtin here is speaking specifically about the medieval and early Renaissance world of Western and Central Europe, in which individuals ‘built a second world and a second life outside of officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less’ (1984b: 6). This condition is the result of a centripetal, sanctioning cultural force that consolidated class and state and that rewarded adherence to ecclesiastical and to other official forms. The more important point is that lived life includes not only what we speak and name, but also what we cannot speak (or refuse to speak). Lived life returns in some other form that is nevertheless recognizable as another ‘distinct portion of itself’. Bakhtin even goes so far as to suggest that, as carnivals and feasts became less the province of everyday life and more something to be set aside for revelry by landowners, these feasts came more and more to be associated with ‘crisis time’, ‘moments of death and revival, of change and renewal’, ‘of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in the life of society and man’ [sic] (1984b: 9). Recognizing the crisis associated with carnival and with the excessive and unspoken is important if we want to reconsider the possibility of recognizing and understanding the subaltern. It is important because it forces us to be aware of the critical and disruptive potential in everyday events, like the death of a family member or, as in the case of the Yoruba figure so noticed by James Baldwin, the creation of a work that refracts the material conditions of the mundane act of walking to or from work in contemporary Nigeria. The series of events that leads Saul Zuratas to disappear and to ‘reappear’ to the narrator of El Hablador as an insider/outsider in Machiguenga culture as a storyteller is the encroachment upon that culture by members of a university department of language and anthropology in which Zuratas was, for a short while, a student. This would certainly qualify, I should think, for members of the Machiguenga, as crisis time. What is important to notice is just how that crisis is met: not by revolution or by flight into the forest, as narrated by the voice of either Zuratas or any individual Machiguenga, but by the palpable disruption and up-ending of the everyday, humdrum narrative of a storyteller, who himself has as his calling the continuation of the narrative of the ‘people who walk’ (but who have no direct, unmediated voice), a narrative that turns out to be that of the Western narrator. How else do you explain the third section of the book putatively narrated by a storyteller on the encroachment of the Viracochas, the whites? It is that section that is intruded upon by Kafka, in which the storyteller was ‘changed into an insect. … A Buzz-buzz bug, perhaps. A Gregor-Tasurinchi. I was lying on my back’ (Vargas-Llosa, 1989: 203). It is intruded upon by the voice of the storyteller's parrot calling the storyteller's name, ‘Mas-ca-ri-ta, Mas-ca-ri-ta, Mas-ca-ri-ta …’ (1989: 234). Crisis time here is met with a narrative of the everyday—of life and death, of bad spells cast and men and women in love—but it is a narrative that is so up-ended that the name of the narrator and the name of the storyteller become so confused as to become unhitched from the generic constraints of novel or even conception. What you hear is not the voice of the subaltern at the critical juncture of crisis, but the voice of the narrator disrupted by the unspoken presence of the unseen and inaccessible subaltern centre of the book itself. This is no political revolution, but a discursive crisis rendered visible and susceptible to analysis if we are only attentive to the circumstances of lived life that create it.

The disruption of the voice of the narrator in El Hablador, as both mundane and revolutionary—the ‘two-world condition’—assumes a view of history that is non-linear, and (at least in Bakhtin's view) cyclical. In trying to name the everyday events of a lived life from the perspective of historical time—as in the Renaissance when ‘grotesque images … become the means for the artistic and ideological expression of a mighty awareness of history and of historic change’ (Bakhtin, 1984b: 25)—those named images nevertheless ‘preserve their peculiar nature, entirely different from readymade, completed being’ (1984b: 25) and historical time. The effect of the marginal/everyday upon history is rupture, what Bhabha recognizes as aporia, ellipsis, the dislocation of the grotesque, or perhaps marginal, certainly subaltern (‘not possessing one's own hegemonic position’ from which to speak) (see Bhabha, 1994: 52-60; quote from 59). This rupture expresses itself (at least, suggests Bakhtin, in popular festive forms of the carnivalesque) in the erasure of the line between past and future, the possible and the impossible. ‘The author of the “[prophetic] riddle”’ of events of dread and wonder also foretells the ‘complete destruction of the established hierarchy, social, political, and domestic’ (Bakhtin, 1984b: 237) and, I would add, generic/discursive. If such a crisis time is anything like Benjamin's ‘blasting the moment out of the continuum of history’, in which the figural Angelus Novus moves forward through time with his back to the future and with his eyes on the disaster of the present blowing him backward (Benjamin, 1969: 262, 257-8), then we have a way to understand not the language or voice of the subaltern but the circumstances of crisis that increase the likelihood of an ‘authorial exchange’ whose anxious attempts to name the other provide radical excess, and the character of prophecy and the future in the present through which the language of that other might be expressed or through which it may have an effect.

Such an effect uncannily rings in a reader's future in a way that forces her to reconsider the name of (aspects of) the other in herself. Finally, Bakhtin is interested in the potential for parody, laughter and debasement in the carnival exchange to lead to what he calls ‘freedom’. Inasmuch as freedom is necessarily elusive as a state of being, it nevertheless has effects that can be measured in certain instances, instances that potentially change human ethical activity from that point forward. This, I think, is the kind of freedom Bakhtin has in mind when he ascribes to carnival a peculiar logic of the ‘inside out’ (à l'envers), of the ‘turnabout’, of a continual shifting ‘from top to bottom, from front to rear’ which is ‘frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times’ (1984b: 11, 10). The laughter that comes of inversion has an ‘indissoluble and essential relation to freedom’ from sanction, from the law, and from conventional notions of the Divine (1984b: 89). If we go back to the Dostoevsky book (1984a, 185ff.), the laughter evoked through the parodic exchange in carnival comes from a feeling of ambivalence about the utterances themselves and which takes precedence, which is the ‘serious’ word and which is meant to undercut or destabilize it. Bakhtin suggests that parody is meant to ‘regenerate’.

What is regenerated is one's sense of self, one's understanding of how she has a place in lived life, in history, a sense drawn ‘from the outside world. It is the ideological interpretation of one's social recognizance and tenability by rights, and of the objective security and tenability provided by the whole social order, of one's individual livelihood’ (Voloshinov, 1986: 89). The ambivalence evoked by reorienting one's own language to another's language also in part reorients the material with which one constructs a self in the first place. Laughter, in the instance of parody, can be seen as a physical manifestation of an irruption of excess into a discourse characterized by the orderliness of its naming of a self and an object of discussion, and it marks a certain freedom to the extent that it provides a way out of the univocity of that name. In El Hablador the storyteller's parrot mimics Zuratas's nickname, ‘Mas-ca-ri-ta, Mas-ca-ri-ta’, and it makes the position of the reader ambivalent. That parroted name levels two discourses, one utterable and one unutterable, one recognizable in the language of the Western novelist, and one unrecognizable (the language of the storyteller) except in the way that it invades the narrator's language. The name becomes, in Bakhtin's terms, untenable, freed to show the reader just how adroitly it manages to, in Baldwin's terms, go to town.


What we have learned is that Bakhtin's understanding of the carnival is connected to an historical time that is not linear but, in Benjamin's terms, shot through with other time. Such an understanding resituates not just the carnivalized subject, the clown or the rogue, but the speaking subject. Like Bakhtin, Bhabha suggests in the essays that comprise The Location of Culture (1994) that the identification by that subject of an imagined, named place and time locate her both centrally as a ‘citizen’ but also (by dint of what she cannot say) as a stranger to those aspects of nation and culture that are not and cannot be named. The state, the location of utterance, is an originary point of difference, a difference that is irrepressible and yet which announces the weight of the historical gran récits by the ruptures which cannot help but be seen in that larger narrative. It is this originary point that Spivak would like to see as the beginning of a post-colonial intervention.

She begins, much as Bakhtin does, by asking about what is omitted from the (colonial) master narrative. Spivak's question is as much about the language that cannot be spoken as it is about the conditions about which can be spoken, and in this she has in mind, I think, those subjects so marginalized as to be unclassifiable in terms of the ideologies that define ‘citizen-subjects’, like members of the Machiguenga tribe, or those who, like Mascarita, are demographically and culturally unnameable (a Jew by choice in a Christian country who believes in the magic of the native cultures). Spivak suggests that such a question draws our attention to the weight of those national narratives, and the sense that such a narrative ‘takes on its own impetus as it were, so that one begins to see reality as non-narrated’ (Spivak, 1990: 19). In part, suggests Spivak, the work of the post-colonial critic is to be attentive to the momentum of such narratives so as to suggest the points at which those narratives seem to be stories of forgetting their connection to the real, the conditions that bore them. Inasmuch as each narrative, and particularly each colonial narrative, names not the materiality of the state but the momentum gathered by the story itself as it works itself up into a seamless garment that says over and over again ‘I am I’, Spivak's method is in part to put pressure on those narratives by looking for places where the utterance works too hard, where it seems not to be saying ‘I am I’ but rather ‘Don't look at that which isn't me’. The places to look for such ruptures in the narrative are ‘on the other side’ of such attempts to forge identity (Spivak, 1990: 28), not necessarily in the originary point of utterance as though it were a point-in-space, but in an effect of some unseen or unperceived cause: the formation of a subject prior to its insertion into the narrative of identification, of the ‘I’, of univocal voice.

If we put this back into the terms of Bakhtin's writing on carnival (or on authorship, or on parody), the location or point of origin is the moment of impossibility of speech. It is the location in time and space at which the speaker recognizes that she cannot predict or understand the voice of the other, and that, paradoxically, she cannot see herself as the other does. At that moment she misspeaks, says the wrong thing, says what she does not mean and thereby produces a word, an effect, that disturbs the context of the situation while at the same time (re)constructs it. If we push this far enough, every utterance, every word, is potentially parodic because every utterance is directed at what we think our interlocutor—or what we ourselves, if we were able to say our name, our ‘I’—might say.

A subject defined by its otherness and its connection to the necessity for self-(mis-)identification is in many ways consistent with Spivak's reformulations of Marxist theory, which more clearly articulate the position of the ‘uninterpellated’ subject. In her work on the literature of India, agency is both active and constrained, both radically textual (in that we speak and are spoken as subjects) and entirely material. The constraints upon agency are the result of a convergence of effects (political and social) that tend to situate or place individuals in material and social relation.

As Spivak puts it, we should act as if we ‘cannot consider all other subjects, and that [we] should look at [our] own subjective investment in the narrative that is being produced. … [T]he western theoretical establishment should take a moratorium on producing a global solution. … Try to behave as if you are part of the margin, try to unlearn your privilege. … [I]t is an invitation for the investigating subject to see that the projects are produced within a much larger textuality’ (Spivak, 1990: 29, 30). The classical (or, perhaps, ham-handed vulgar) Marxist tradition sees class as an analytical tool with which we can understand individuals' relations to one another given the material and discursive constraints of ideology. Spivak's reformulation insists on a two-way relation: individual subjects interpellated ideologically by their relations to others, but interpellation itself is affected by the naming and misnaming, remembering and forgetting, narrating and untelling. Like Bakhtin, Spivak wants to make room for what is left out by trying to identify moments in which what is left out makes its way from the margin to the centre, not as text but as effect on text. But what Spivak leaves untheorized—like Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his otherwise accurate description of the production of ‘otherness-as-commodity’ in Western assumptions about African art—is just what ‘unlearning privilege’ or ‘behaving as if we were on the margin’ looks like.

This is because, according to Spivak, it isn't possible. As I've tried to suggest all along, what's especially odd about the subaltern in this view is that it's a position occupied by identifiable human subjects but that it is clearly inaccessible by other human subjects that do not occupy those positions. For her, the term subaltern is ‘truly situational’ (1990: 141). Part of the problem here is that Spivak (and her interlocutors in the Subaltern Studies Group, including Ranjit Guha) takes the term from Gramsci. Hegemony is exerted upon those subjects who ‘share an interest’ and who participate in a culture dominated by a number of complex ideological forces. But those subjects who do not share the interests valorized by those defining the tasks of the state or its culture are left out, and so do not have access to the political and cultural arena. ‘The subaltern really had no access to those narratives of nationalism, those narratives of internationalism, nationalism, secularism’; the subaltern is non-narrativizable, and so the only political or discursive position it can occupy is as ‘a non-narrativizable subject of opposition’ (Spivak, 1990: 142, 145). This is why, Spivak suggests, there can be no subaltern position in the first world, and certainly not in the United States: every interest is so completely brought under the narrative of class and is so completely involved in an economy that proliferates images for pleasure (1990: 143-4) that the possibility of the subaltern is coopted and reintegrated into that economy. What you get is either the narrative of pleasure and class or silence, with silence occasionally erupting into the narrative of nation or transnational economy, but which is subsequently coopted by that narrative (see the concluding section of ‘Can the subaltern speak?’).

Bakhtin, fortunately, tells another story. While his notion of the subject is similar to Spivak's, and while his understanding of the voice on the margins whose tendency it is to disrupt wider historical or linear narratives of nation and class is similar to Spivak's, his ideas about the palpability and the effect of the radical subaltern voice is not. Rabelais and His World, along with the material on monologism/dialogism and on language as material, suggests that the tendency to see language and class as intransigent and monolithic, is unavoidable. (We can't ‘talk our way out of’ class or out of a paradigmatic way of understanding self or world.) But at the same time, there exists what might be called a ‘subaltern effect’ or ‘Otherness effect’ inherent in language itself. Such an effect marks the boundaries of class and of understanding but it also exceeds it, like the excess of vision required in the utterance of one's name, like the excess of narrative that could be said to result in the composition of the narrator's story that forms the heart of El Hablador.

The subaltern effect is visible in the space occupied by work like Man with a Bicycle, created by ‘those who will not see themselves as Other’ (Appiah, 1991: 356), because the anxiety of non-coincidence is nothing to become anxious about. It is the effect that ‘renders [voice] more material, closer to man [sic] and his body, more understandable, and lighter’ (Bakhtin, 1984b: 380). It is visible in the space where, ‘despite unimaginable poverty; despite wars, malnutrition, disease, and political instability, … cultural productivity grows apace: popular literatures, oral narrative and poetry, dance drama, music and visual art all thrive’ (Appiah, 1991: 356). And, in first-world cultures, it is visible in the parrot that cries ‘Mas-ca-ri-ta, Mas-ca-ri-ta’, and haunts the peripheral vision not of a narrator in Florence but a novelist and politician from Peru exiled in Spain.


This is what we have learned from Bakhtin: because language itself is the always unfinished creation of a subject in the midst of the verbal and ideological material through which we mediate lived life, and because the act of utterance entails both saying that which you didn't intend and the potentially liberatory excess that comes with the act of misremembering and misnaming your self and your interlocutor and your location, every act of speech is an act of otherness, of exteriority, or marginalization and cooptation by the centre. Learning this entails understanding the fragility of what we say, and the fragility of the location—not really a location at all, but an aporia between myself and the ‘I’—from which we say it. Spivak is right: there is no subaltern in the first world. But she is also wrong: there is a subaltern effect even in the most monologic of utterances. Spivak is also right to suggest that we are most likely to be aware of the effect of the subaltern where the pressure of colonization and exploitation are exerted on a national or cultural language. But Bakhtin suggests that such pressure—of domination and exploitation, silence and exile, misuse and cooptation—exists in the language of a Peruvian novelist as it does in the language of the Indian intellectual. How, then, do we most actively engage this subaltern effect?

We do so by paying close attention to the location of utterance. As Bhabha (1990, 1994) has suggested of the margins that now exist in the heterogeneity of the cosmopolitan city centre, and as Bakhtin has suggested of fools, peasants and idiots in the marketplace, it is by first investigating the location of marginal culture that we begin to match the characteristics of the liminal, the carnival, and the subaltern with the effects that they have not just on those locations but upon the investigator. Here I will be relying on Satya Mohanty's essay, ‘Epilogue’, but I have in mind also the work of Bakhtin: ‘[O]ur location is an objective feature of the world in which we live, the world as it is constituted precisely by various “positions” of power and powerlessness. As such, our location is causally significant; it shapes our experiences and our ways of knowing’ (Mohanty, 1995: 110).

Neither Mohanty nor Spivak want to reduce an attentiveness to position to an attempt to try to place ourselves in the position of the other, and in so doing ask whether those others have anything valuable to tell us. To do so would be to ask, like the narrator of El Hablador does of Saul Zuratas before he disappears, whether ‘polygamy, animism, head shrinking, and witch doctoring with tobacco brews represent a superior form of culture’ (Vargas-Llosa, 1989: 24). It would amount to simply a different form of colonialism. And there is some serious doubt, suggests Mohanty, whether even the most radical anti-foundational position can be useful to a cultural studies project which tries to take seriously the possibility that there are other ways of knowing, voices which we may not be able to hear, precisely because of the values we hold or the paradigms within which we work.

Mohanty suggests, like Bakhtin, that we act ‘as if’ we were able to know something about the position of the other—as in a speaking situation—and treat our knowledge ‘as if’ it was objective, knowing full well that it nevertheless is mediated by our own inextricable position in the historical gran récit. The ‘subaltern effect’ that is simply part and parcel of our predicament as subjects cut across by discursive and ideological material lures us into thinking of the other as the other-to-be-named, while at the same time it frees us to be able to think of the other as the other-who-cannot-be-spoken. It allows us to suggest that, while we may not be able to hear the voice of the subaltern, there are portions of a world that both the subaltern and we share in common.

Important to such a programme is the need to approach this tension in an ‘open-ended way: thus, a basic question to ask about particular disagreements is whether—and to what extent—they refer to the same things, the same features of the world’ (Mohanty, 1995: 114). To put it the way Roy Bhaskar does, to say of two radically disparate understandings—the licit and the illicit, historical time and ‘crisis time’, one's location and the statement that names that location—that they produce a clash or a stutter is to presuppose ‘that there is something—a domain of real objects or relations existing and acting independently of their (conflicting) descriptions—over which they clash. Hence incommensurable theories must share a part world in common’ (Bhaskar, 1989: 19). Mohanty and Bhaskar both suggest, in part, that the position of the subaltern is not directly accessible, any more than the utterance of the pronomial ‘I’ locates the position of the subject; and that contextualizing the subaltern in terms of the larger cultural or historical narrative that by coercion or by sheer entropy, or what Bakhtin would call centripetality, coopts it and more or less swallows it whole is simply unavoidable. But both also suggest that we learn significantly about those very subaltern positions (or, in Bakhtin's terms, those clowns, peasants, dunces, fools) by dint of their effect upon broader cultural narratives; and both suggest that those positions provide a more accurate sense of the nature and characteristics of broad cultural narratives because they are quite apparently the positions most affected by them. Spivak's concern, mirrored by Appiah's, that women and third-world artists and thinkers become ‘otherness machines’ (Spivak, 1990: 356), prized because they represent those who cannot be spoken for, is at least partly mitigated here: in the words of Sandra Harding, it is the third-world intellectual, the woman who has worked in oppressive conditions in the north of India,

the outsider within, the marginal person now located at the center, the person who is committed to two agendas that are themselves at least partially in conflict—the liberal feminist, socialist feminist, Sandinista feminist, Islamic feminist, or feminist scientist—who has generated feminist sciences and new knowledges.

(Harding, 1992: 455)

Knowledge created under these kinds of dissonant conditions, from this multiplicity of locations, is superior to what we might think of as ‘objective’ knowledge because it not only mirrors, apropos Bakhtin, the conditions under which we all speak, but also because it requires

the strong objectivity that can take the subject as well as the object of knowledge to be a necessary object of critical, causal-scientific-social explanations. … Understanding ourselves and the world around us requires understanding what others think of us and our beliefs and actions, not just what we think of ourselves and them.

(Harding, 1992: 460, 461)

This, I take it, is what Bakhtin may have meant when he says, in Rabelais and His World, that the reduction, the excess, the incommensurable ‘prepared a new, scientific knowledge of this world’ which ‘destroyed all alienation: it drew the world closer to man, to his body, permitted him to touch and test every object, examine it from all sides, enter into it, turn it inside out, compare it to every phenomenon’ (1984b: 381). We may not be able to name the subaltern, the marginal, we may not occupy the positions of pieceworkers in factories in Malaysia, and we may not know for certain the significance of the stories that justify the nomadism of a particular Peruvian people, but by being attentive to the effects of those positions upon the narratives and the economies of the national or the transnational or the intellectual, and by understanding that those positions mark the boundaries, the limits, of objectivity and of what we take to be the coherence of a culture, the subaltern may be seen to have more than simply a transitory existence, and that his story, though told through the pen of either a Gayatri Spivak or a Mario Vargas-Llosa, might nevertheless mark the position of writing, of telling, itself.


  1. Vargas-Llosa (1989: 241, 244).

  2. Bakhtin (1984b: 237, 381).


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Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn (1990) ‘Speaking in tongues: dialogics, dialectics and the black woman writer's literary tradition’, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr (ed.), Reading Black, Reading Feminist: a Critical Anthology. New York: Meridian. pp. 116-42.

Mohanty, Satya P. (1995) ‘Epilogue. Colonial legacies, multicultural futures: relativism, objectivity, and the challenge of otherness’, PMLA 110 (1): 108-18.

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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1994) ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 66-111.

Suleri, Sara (1992) ‘Woman skin deep: feminism and the postcolonial condition’, Critical Inquiry, 18: 756-69.

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Aileen M. Kelly (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Kelly, Aileen M. “The Flesh of Time: Mikhail Bakhtin.” In Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov, and Bakhtin, pp. 192-216. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Kelly compares Bakhtin's approach toward utopian systems and systemic thinking to that of his compatriot and predecessor Alexander Herzen, considered the father of Russian socialism.]

In June 1995 an international conference was held in Moscow to celebrate the centenary of one of Russia's best-known intellectuals—the philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Participants from twenty countries came together to discuss the legacy of a thinker who had emerged from obscurity in his old age to become the object of a cult, first in his own country and then in the West. His influence on literary and linguistic studies and the human sciences has grown steadily from the mid-1970s, creating a Bakhtin industry of monumental proportions; as the commentaries on his work pile up, Bakhtin centers are beginning to dot the globe from Saransk to Sheffield. But as Caryl Emerson's study of Bakhtin's first hundred years reveals, no clear sense of his place in twentieth-century thought has yet emerged from these labors.1 On the contrary, his heritage has become ever more fiercely contested by rival claimants. In the West his ideas have been appropriated by structuralists and poststructuralists, Marxists and post-Marxists, liberals, Christians, materialists, sociolinguists, and postmodern pragmatists. In post-Soviet Russia attempts to place Bakhtin are part of the revaluation of an entire intellectual heritage that was distorted or suppressed under communism. His ideas are now a focus of contention among Russian nationalists, neohumanists, and religious revivalists, all of whom have sought to claim him as a precursor, while others maintain that his true significance for the new Russia lies in his nonconformism and his independence from all schools of thought: V. L. Makhlin describes him as a non-Marxist, a nonformalist, a nonstructuralist, a non-Freudian, a nonexistentialist, a noncollectivist, a nonutopian, a nontheologian, and a nonmodernist.2

Bakhtin's most searching critics in the West have approached him in a similar spirit, citing his consistent opposition to systematizing theories of literature, culture, and the self. Emerson and G. S. Morson argue that Bakhtin's suspicion of what he called theoretism or monologism places him among the minority of Russian thinkers who resisted the ideological intransigence of the majority tradition, defending the claims of the individual and the particular against the tyranny of systems, maintaining that not all values could or should be harmonized, and warning of the dangers of seeking final solutions to open problems. In his rejection of absolutist approaches to ethics Bakhtin was, as Morson and Emerson show, particularly close to Tolstoy.3 But his position was more consistent than that of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and many other Russian writers and thinkers who were torn between their pluralistic vision and their yearning to uncover a single unitary pattern which would resolve all the contradictions of experience and give a firm sense and direction to their lives. Bakhtin was not immune to the attractions of utopian thought but was more aware of its dangers than most. He began very early in his career to meditate on the ways in which language, culture, and intellectual habits lead human beings to idealize abstractions and to devalue the world of immediate experience. In this he was covering ground explored in the previous century by the greatest of Russian philosophers of freedom, Aleksandr Herzen. By focusing on certain congruences in their thought, I intend to situate Bakhtin more precisely in his Russian context, as a representative of a tenuous but robust strand of anti-ideological thought which has survived in Russia from the early nineteenth through all of the twentieth century and has much potential for the twenty-first.

The story of Bakhtin's astonishing career is too well known to need detailed retelling here. Born in 1895 to a cultivated gentry family in the south Russian city of Oryol, he studied philosophy and classics at Petrograd University, where he developed a strong interest in German philosophy from Kant to the Marburg school of neo-Kantians. After the Revolution, plagued by ill health, he supported himself with intermittent teaching and lecturing, while developing his ideas within a small group of similarly gifted intellectuals who met to discuss literature and philosophy. In 1924 he settled in the newly renamed Leningrad, where his circle included the biologist I. I. Kanaev, the poet N. A. Kliuev, and the experimental writers Konstantin Vaginov and Daniil Kharms. The climate of the time made publication difficult. Bakhtin's first major work, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, which expounded his theory of dialogism, appeared only in 1929, shortly after his arrest in one of the roundups of intellectuals that accompanied the launching of Stalin's “cultural revolution.” A favorable review of the book by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar of enlightenment, helped get his sentence reduced: he was exiled to Kazakhstan, where among other odd jobs he taught bookkeeping to collective farm members while working on the theory of the novel. In 1946 he submitted a doctoral dissertation on François Rabelais, which was rejected as ideologically unsound. After the war he taught literature at the Teachers' College (later University) of Saransk, a remote town east of Moscow. He emerged from obscurity in the early 1960s when a group of young Moscow scholars who admired his book on Dostoevsky were amazed to discover that he was still alive. That book was republished in an expanded edition in 1963, followed two years later by his reworked dissertation, Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Both books caused a sensation in Russian literary circles unaccustomed to original, independent thought. Brought back to Moscow, Bakhtin was treated as a celebrity by literary scholars. Confined by illness to his apartment in his last years, he continued to write until his death in 1975; meanwhile, his work had become well known in the West through the translations of his two books and his essays on the historical poetics of the novel, published collectively in 1981 as The Dialogic Imagination.

Academic excitement over Bakhtin grew as it became evident that his key concepts, including heteroglossia, chronotope, polyphony, unfinalizability (nezavershennost), outsideness (vnenakhodimost), dialogue, and carnival, challenged systematic thought across a range of disciplines, offering new and fruitful approaches not merely to language and literature, but to human experience in general. But assessments of his work have become more discriminating, and the last two concepts (buzzwords throughout the humanities in the 1980s) have come to be seen as the most problematic in an oeuvre whose originality and scholarly precision are now widely held to have been overvalued.

Certainly, Bakhtin's admirers have tended to inflate the philosophical importance of his analysis of self-other relations. Although aspects of it anticipate later theories of intersubjectivity, it lacks philosophical rigor. Its value lies in the way in which, by challenging conventional thinking about language, psychology, and cultural history, it encourages the reader to reconsider the question of his or her moral responsibility in the everyday world. Referring to the widespread tendency to approach Dostoevsky's novels as the vehicles of a single authorial ideology, Bakhtin observed, “The scientific consciousness of contemporary humanity has learned to orient itself in the complex circumstances of ‘the probability of the universe’; no ‘uncertainties’ are capable of confusing this scientific consciousness, for it knows how to allow for them and to calculate them. It has long since grown accustomed to the Einsteinian world with its multitudinous systems of measurement, etc. But in the realm of artistic cognition people sometimes continue to demand the crudest, most primitive certainty, which is self-evidently not true.”4

In the best tradition of Russian thinkers, Bakhtin was preoccupied with questions of practical ethics.5 He believed that human beings could be morally coherent and maximally creative only if they learned to live without the traditional props of faith in absolutes and final certainties. He argued that, like all phenomenal being, the self is intrinsically dialogical: its viability depends on the quality of its responses to its environment. It cannot be understood or expressed except in relation to an audience whose real or imagined responses continually shape the way in which we define ourselves. Bakhtin diverged from traditional and Saussurian linguistics in approaching language not as a formal system, but as utterances whose meaning is contingent on relationships of “intense interaction and struggle” between the points of view of speakers, readers, and writers in socially specific circumstances at particular historical moments. Each word, he wrote, “tastes of the … contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life.” The dialogical nature of our relationship with an evolving environment invalidates the notion of fixed and final truths. The more highly differentiated a society becomes, the greater importance its members attach to each others' values as the subject of “interpretation, discussion, evaluation, rebuttal, support, further development.” There are no limits to the dialogic context: it embraces the remote past as well as the present. Novelistic images (for example, Cervantes's Don Quixote) live different lives in different epochs, “reaccentuated” in a variety of ways which are a continuation of the unresolved argument embodied in them: “Nothing definitive has yet taken place in the world, the final word of the world and about the world has not yet been said, the world is open and free.6

In Rabelais and in a chapter added to the second edition of his book on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin explores the way in which “official monologism” with its claim to possession of a ready-made truth has been subverted throughout history by a carnival sense of the world: a grasp of the primal realities of existence—birth, decay, metamorphosis, rebirth, and the impermanence of all human structures and powers. Traditionally expressed in folkloric humor and the rituals of the common people, this sense of truth was acted out on streets and squares in the spectacles of carnival, in which institutions were travestied, authorities mocked, and divinities profaned. During the carnival the population lived a “life turned inside out,” their costumes and actions depicting grotesque contrasts and pairings of opposites: youth and age, noble and lowly, sacred and blasphemous.7 The laws and hierarchies governing everyday existence were temporarily suspended and symbolically overturned, as in the ritual performance of the mock crowning and subsequent uncrowning and beating of the carnival king. Bakhtin traced carnival ambivalence in literature from its beginnings in the Menippean satires of antiquity to the Renaissance, when in the hands of Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Rabelais it became the vehicle of a new humanism, rehabilitating the world which medieval eschatology had taught humanity to despise. Gargantua and Pantagruel are carnival heroes; the gigantic scale of their physical functions mocked medieval asceticism and celebrated the earthy realities of life.

In his writings on the novel Bakhtin tracks the seepage of the carnival attitude into modern literature through the picaresque novel and the techniques of parody and the grotesque, which presented life “drawn out of its usual rut,” approaching the established order of things in a spirit of play. Through this “muted laughter” such writers as Dostoevsky had explored the subterranean processes whereby traditional beliefs and dogmas begin to lose their hold on minds, accepted categories and distinctions break down, and new ways of perceiving the world evolve. Mid-nineteenth-century Russia had experienced such a revolution in consciousness when profound economic and social changes had shattered old institutions and certainties. At that time “not only people and their actions, but also ideas broke out of their self-enclosed hierarchical nests and began to collide.”8 Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky conveyed this phenomenon with exceptional power through the carnivalistically scandalous scenes in his novels and through their polyphonic structure, which presented characters as a plurality of independent voices, points of view on the world that engage in a genuine open-ended dialogue. Refusing to be finalized by others' definitions of them, their every thought a rejoinder in a debate with themselves and others on the values by which they live, Dostoevsky's characters embody that capacity to surprise which frustrates all attempts to enclose human beings within the confines of systems.

Ironically, the analysis of Dostoevsky that brought Bakhtin to world attention is now widely considered to be the most flawed aspect of his work. His interpretation of the novels as polyphonic has been judged a misreading of Dostoevsky's intentions and an oversimplification of his technique, while his view of dialogism as open-ended and liberating exchange does not take us far in understanding Dostoevsky's most self-obsessed and tragic heroes, who experience the utterances of others as entrapment or use them to consolidate a prior vision of the world. Bakhtin's historical account of folk carnival has attracted equally severe criticism as a utopian fantasy which opposes an idealized common people to an alien “official culture” and lends itself to distorted and schematized readings of literary texts and historical periods.9

Bakhtin addressed this last charge in 1946 in his defense of his doctoral dissertation on Rabelais. The transcript of the discussion records that he accepted his examiners' view that his interpretation of medieval and Renaissance society was selective and simplistic and that he had exaggerated the joyous aspects of popular life; but he maintains that he had not intended the work to be a compilation of the facts that historical research had already made widely available. He was well aware of the dark side of the people's life and of carnival revolt; but his aim had been to reveal the role that laughter could play in transforming human consciousness and in liberating people from fear.10 This may sound suspiciously like the forcing of fact to conform to theory, but unlike some of his Western neo-Marxist interpreters, he never presented carnival as a manifestation of the dialectical movement of history toward the overcoming of self-alienation.11 He observes that laughter is “essentially not an external but an interior form of truth”; its insights were ephemeral and followed by a reversion to old beliefs and fears.12 But these brief moments, by revealing the world in a new light, opened the way to investigation and experiment. As a mode of literary creation, carnivalization was “a sort of heuristic principle” that made new discoveries possible. In European literature it had performed the momentous function of breaking down boundaries between styles, genres, and self-enclosed systems of thought: “It destroyed all kinds of isolation and mutual neglect, it brought together things that were far apart, and united things that were separated.” In the works of the great Renaissance writers the carnival sense was expressed as a “truly divine freedom” of approach to the world and the human being. In the scandalous scenes in Dostoevsky's novels, full of carnivalized contrasts, “the ‘rotten strings’ of the official and personal lie are snapped (or at least weakened for an instant) and human souls are laid bare. … A different—more authentic—sense of themselves and their relationships to one another is revealed.”13

In the course of an interview in 1973, when asked whether in the twenties he had considered himself “more of a philosopher than a philologist,” Bakhtin replied, “More of a philosopher, and such I have remained until the present day.”14 His brand of philosophy was distinctively Russian in its concern with applied ethics: his writings on the carnivalesque are best approached not as contributions to literary criticism, cultural history, or political theory but rather as reflections on the phenomenology of fear and the spiritual resources that can defeat it.15 Bakhtin's study of carnival was modest in compass but vastly ambitious in purpose: by tracking successive incarnations in history and literature of one aspect of human potential, he hoped to contribute to a transformation of our inner relationship with the world.

“I am an obsessed innovator,” Bakhtin told his examiners in 1946; such people “are very rarely understood.”16 In the search to understand Bakhtin the emphasis has recently shifted from his studies of genre to their philosophical grounding. Scholars have found this exceptionally difficult to define: the relevant source material is frustratingly scrappy, consisting of essays and larger fragments written in the 1920s and published posthumously, and Bakhtin's often gnomic responses to his questioners in interviews given in the 1970s. This material has been heavily annotated by commentators searching for parallels between Bakhtin's insights and those of philosophical heavyweights from Henri-Louis Bergson and Martin Buber to Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger;17 but very few either in Russia or the West have pointed to the remarkable parallels between his thought and that of another misunderstood innovator, Aleksandr Herzen.18 I believe that a comparison of their respective obsessions will lead us to the elusive essence of Bakhtin's philosophical enterprise.

The first chapter of Bakhtin's book on Rabelais starts with a quotation from Herzen: “It would be extremely interesting to write the history of laughter.” In a long footnote Bakhtin includes the passage from which this quotation is taken—Herzen's response to criticism of the satirical tone used by his paper the Bell in discussing the attitudes of the Russian nobility and tsarist officialdom. “Laughter is no joke,” Herzen declared, and he had no intention of desisting from it. “No one laughs in church, in palaces, when waging war, in front of the office chief, or the commissioner of police. … Domestic serfs have not the right to smile in the master's presence. Only equals laugh among themselves [Bakhtin's italics].”19 Authority has always feared laughter's subversive force, and with reason: to smile before the ancient bull-god Apis would have been to demote him to the status of a common farmyard animal. “Truly, there is something revolutionary in laughter. … The laughter of Voltaire destroyed more than the tears of Rousseau”: Bakhtin cites these words from another article in which Herzen responds to Russian liberals who had attacked him for an irreverent approach to the culture and institutions of their “elder brothers”—the advanced democracies of the West. Herzen saw no reason to apologize: “A person looks freely at an object only when he does not bend it to his theory and does not himself bow before it. … An object about which one cannot speak smilingly without falling into blasphemy, without fearing pangs of conscience, is a fetish. People are crushed by it, they fear to mix it with ordinary life. Thus Egyptian sculpture and our primitive iconography gave idols unnatural poses and unnatural coloring in order to distinguish them from the despised world of earthly beauty and the color of warm, living flesh.”20

Bakhtin may seem excessively reverent in his praise of the profundity of Herzen's reflections on the historical function of laughter; but he rightly perceived that he and Herzen were engaged in the same serious philosophical project. Both of them used laughter as a shorthand term for what Bakhtin described as “a specific aesthetic attitude to reality … untranslatable into logical language …, a specific means of artistic perception and cognition.” Using Dostoevsky as his example, Bakhtin calls it “an unusually flexible” form of artistic vision that “makes possible new things” through its capacity to grasp the many-sidedness and potential of the fleeting moment and of the most commonplace individuals and events.21 Herzen had described a similar approach, which did not impoverish the world by forcing it into systems, as “artistic thinking.”22 Such a vision, Bakhtin explains, is able to capture phenomena in the process of change and transition, “in their continuous, creative, renewing changeability; death is foreseen in birth and birth in death, defeat in victory and victory in defeat, discrowning in coronation.” Its world is one of “birth, renewal, fertility, abundance”—the untidy world of everyday reality that cannot be encompassed by fixed concepts or reduced to single meanings. Laughter “does not deny seriousness but purifies and completes it. … it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naiveté and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality.” It does not permit seriousness to atrophy and break away from the unfinished wholeness of everyday existence: “It restores this ambivalent wholeness.”23

The last two words encapsulate the approach to the world that Herzen had preached in opposition to the idealists of his age: every historical moment, every action, is both aesthetically and ethically open—full of unrealized possibilities and yet complete in itself, independently of its hypothetical place in any larger scheme of things. Both thinkers believed that such an understanding of the world must become general if humanity's creative powers were to be maximally developed: hence their attack on what Bakhtin refers to as “the great interior censor”:24 the deference to authorities and norms anchored in our cultural past that fetters thought and circumscribes our actions in the present. They believed that in order to make new things possible, we have to change the way we think and speak about the everyday world.

Bakhtin and Herzen had both begun their rehabilitation of that despised sphere with critiques of the great utopian systems that dominated progressive thought in their respective ages. Herzen witnessed the transformation of Hegel's schema of rational progress into the revolutionary messianism of the Left Hegelians and Karl Marx, while Bakhtin's early development as a philosopher took place in the context of the religious and neo-Kantian idealism that shaped much of Russian thought and literature in the two decades before the Revolution, before it was swept away by the new orthodoxy of Marxist dialectical materialism. His first surviving philosophical work, written in 1919-21 and published for the first time in 1986 under the title Toward a Philosophy of the Act, is a fragment of a never-completed project on the phenomenology of the individual deed and is centrally concerned with the theme that inspired some of Herzen's finest passages—the way in which teleological systems and doctrines of progress distort the reality of human participation in the historical process and the nature of moral responsibility. Bakhtin contends that all modern philosophy is guilty of this sin:

We are presented as it were with two value-contexts, two kinds of life: the life of the whole boundless world … and my small personal life. …

Instead of bringing all theoretical (possible) knowledge [poznanie] of the world into communion with our actual life-from-within as answerable cognition [uznanie], we attempt to bring our actual life into communion with a possible, theoretical context, either by identifying as essential only the universal moments in our actual life, or by understanding our actual life in the sense of its being a small scrap of the space and time of the large spatial and temporal whole, or by giving it a symbolic interpretation.

What happens in all these cases is that the living, compellent, and inescapable uniqueness of our actual life is diluted with the water of merely thinkable empty possibility …, is declared to be valid only as a moment of infinite matter, toward which we are indifferent, or as an exemplar of Homo sapiens, or as a representative of his own ethics, or as an embodiment of the abstract principle of the Eternal Feminine [a reference to the “sophiology” of Vladimir Solovyov]. That which has actual validity always turns out to be a moment of that which is possible: my own life turns out to be the life of man in general, and this latter life turns out to be one of the manifestations of the world's life.25

As Herzen had done in his early reflections on the nature of moral freedom, Bakhtin homed in on Kant's reliance on moral norms as exemplifying the approach to the self characteristic of Western philosophy since Descartes. He studied and lectured on Kant intensively in the early 1920s and later wrote that while using Kant's ideas of the importance of space and time in the cognitive process, he differed from Kant “in taking them not as ‘transcendental’ but as forms of the most immediate reality.”26 As he explains in his attempt to sketch out a philosophy of the act, Kant's moral doctrine was a system of generalizations based on theoretical transcriptions of moral acts that was of limited use as a guide to how to perform such acts in real-life situations, which could not be precisely predicted or replicated. There are no moral norms that are determinate and valid in themselves, “but there is a moral subiectum with a determinate structure … and it is upon him that we have to rely.” Our moral responsibility derives from our “nonalibi in Being,” an acknowledgment of the fact that we each occupy a unique and unrepeatable place in time and space: “That which can be done by me can never be done by anyone else.” Moral consciousness is the acceptance of answerability for one's irreplaceable participation in Being: “My uniqueness is given yet at the same time only exists to the extent to which it is really actualized by me. … I am actual and irreplaceable, and therefore must actualize my uniqueness.” We may seek to prove our alibi in Being by representing our lives as the ritualistic acting out of some universal principle, but if we are no more than embodiments of eternal truth whose validity is independent of our acts, these acts would be rendered superfluous. By attempting to shift our personal responsibility onto ideologies and systems, we become “imposters and pretenders.”27

In “Robert Owen” Herzen mocks the notion of a historical arrière-pensée which “becomes incarnate whatever the cost, and attains its ends by means of kings and peoples, wars and revolutions. … With what purpose, if it exists already, does it constitute itself again?” The moral value and the dignity of our lives lie not in the incarnation of some universal principle but in the fact that each one of us can be “an irreplaceable reality,” able to do what no one else can do.28

Both men were intensely aware that their insistence on the primacy of individual and concrete manifestations of being ran counter to assumptions deeply embedded in European culture. Herzen observed that all our ways of thinking about human beings and morality, all our images and metaphors, tend to privilege the universal and eternal over the particular and the transient, and he regretted that philosophy had not yet mastered the concept of individuality. Bakhtin argues that even philosophers who have consciously attempted to free themselves from the legacy of rationalism have succumbed to a “fatal theoreticism” based on the belief that “the truth of a situation is precisely what is repeatable and constant in it. Moreover, that which is universal and identical … is fundamental and essential, whereas individual truth [pravda] is artistic and irresponsible.” He continued to meditate on this tendency of the intellect throughout his life, observing (in a note made at the beginning of the 1970s) that in explaining a phenomenon “what we foreground is the ready-made and finalized. Even in antiquity we seek out what is ready-made and finalized, not what has originated and is developing.”29

Toward a Philosophy of the Act was intended as a master plan in four parts—only one of which has survived—for a “first philosophy” (Aristotle's term for a fundamental ontology that lays the foundations for all further philosophizing).30 Bakhtin argues that as theoretical transcriptions from concretely historical being-as-event, modern philosophies (up to and including neo-Kantianism) were all inadequate in this respect. The need of the “striving and action-performing consciousness” to orient itself in the world of events had given rise to historical materialism, but that doctrine committed the common methodological sin of failing to distinguish between what is and what ought to be. A first philosophy could not proceed by constructing general propositions about the world. The subject of moral philosophy is “a world of proper names, a world of these objects and of particular dates of life”; it can be approached only “participatively,” in the way we experience the world through our actions:

The ongoing event can be clear and distinct, in all its constituent moments, to a participant in the act or deed he himself performs. Does this mean that he understands it logically? That is, that what is clear to him are only the universal moments and relations transcribed in the form of concepts? Not at all: he sees clearly these individual, unique persons whom he loves, this sky and this earth and these trees … ; and what is also given to him simultaneously is the value, the actually and concretely affirmed value of these persons and these objects. He intuits their inner lives as well as desires … and he understands … not the abstract law of his act, but the actual, concrete ought conditioned by his unique place in the given context of the ongoing event. And all these moments, which make up the event in its totality, are present to him as something given and as something-to-be-achieved in a unitary light, in a unitary and unique answerable consciousness. … And this event as a whole cannot be transcribed in theoretical terms if it is not to lose the very sense of its being an event, that is, precisely that … with reference to which [the performed act] orients itself.31

Bakhtin contends that while we should not exaggerate the power of language to express the experience of the “concrete truth” of being-as-event, we should also not regard that truth as something ineffable which cannot be clearly articulated. Language developed historically in the service of participative thinking and performed acts, and while lived experience could never be conceptually represented in any fully adequate form, the task “is always present as that which is to be achieved.”32 Herzen had expressed a similar cautious hope that after many false starts and confusions, humanity would be cured of the worship of abstractions, “as they have been of other historical diseases.” Both men focused their critique on the habits of thought inculcated by more than two millennia of Western civilization which, as Herzen put it, had advanced under the twin banners of “Romanticism for the heart” and “Idealism for the mind,”33 leading human beings to seek self-realization in some transcendent sphere cut off from humdrum daily existence. In a short essay of 1919, “Art and Responsibility,” Bakhtin attacks the notion (exemplifed in the romantic image of the alienated artist) of a divorce between aesthetic creativity and everyday life, as a pernicious fiction that blinds us to the fact that our every response to our environment is a creative act. He suggests that the real motive behind attempts to contrast the exalted concerns of art with the humble prose of daily life “is nothing more than the mutual striving of both art and life to make their own tasks easier, to relieve themselves of their own answerability. For it is certainly easier to create without answering for life, and easier to live without any consideration for art.”34

Bakhtin and Herzen both argue that one should speak not of moral norms or systems but of moral creativity—in Bakhtin's words, “the process of creating the ethical deed”; his term for this is “architectonics”—the shaping of a relationship between the individual and his or her constantly changing natural and cultural environment: “It is this concrete architectonic of the actual world of the performed act that moral philosophy has to describe, that is, not the abstract scheme but the concrete plan or design of the world of a unitary and once-occurrent act or deed, the basic concrete moments of its construction and their mutual disposition. These basic moments are I-for-myself, the other-for-me and I-for-the-other. All the values of actual life and culture are arranged around the basic architectonic points of the actual world of the performed act or deed; scientific values, aesthetic values, political values (including both ethical and social values), and finally, religious values.”35

The architectonics of responsibility that Bakhtin attempted to work out in the early 1920s have been described as not a theory, but rather an agenda of topics so complex that one lifetime would not have sufficed to think them through.36 He made a start in that direction through his work on the novel form. He argued that the very characteristics of the novel which have led it to be widely regarded as artistically inferior to other genres—its structural and stylistic openness and its diversity of voices—constitute its unique virtue as a source of moral understanding. Above all, it sharpens our sense of the particular. Characters make choices in situations that cannot be represented in neat formulas. They express their beliefs and values in their individual styles and in “heteroglot” social environments in which no view is incontestable. Some, like Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, are obsessed with the search for timeless truth; but their moral stature emerges through their ability to respond meaningfully to the unfinished ambivalence of quotidian existence. Hence Bakhtin's term for the distinguishing feature of the novel form: “prosaic wisdom.”37 The “living discourse” of the novel, “still warm” from the passions and struggles of everyday life, the genre's ability to convey the “density and concreteness of time” with such markers as a human life, provide an education in moral discrimination which no system of universal norms can furnish. By situating actions and events in well-determined temporal frames and spatial areas, the novel “makes narrative events concrete … causes blood to flow in their veins.” Time “thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible.”38

Thought must “take on flesh, descend into the marketplace of life, unfold in all the splendor and beauty of transient existence”: this was Herzen's advice to those who sought to understand and influence historical processes. In their search for methods and approaches that would convey the “ambivalent wholeness” of the contingent world, both thinkers turned to the natural sciences. Herzen recommended their experimental methods for the training of historians. Bakhtin was intensely interested in physical and biological science: critics have pointed to the way in which his notions of dialogism and addressivity mirror the interdependence of organisms and their physical environments.39 Great novelists, he believed, possessed a “relativized, Galilean linguistic consciousness” which could represent a wide diversity of voices, worldviews, meanings, and values engaged in open-ended struggle and evolution.40 Like Herzen, he paid especially close attention to the discoveries that were progressively replacing linear thinking with multiperspectivism in the human and natural sciences. He records that a lecture in 1925 by the eminent physiologist A. A. Ukhtomsky on the interconnectedness of spatial and temporal relations in biology inspired his own study of the chronotope, or space-time (a term he adopts from Einstein's theory of relativity), in the novel.41

True “artistic thinking,” as defined by Bakhtin and Herzen, shares the scientist's fascination with the evolving forms of an unpredictable and unfinalizable world. They each cite the example of Goethe, who was engrossed both as artist and scientist in the study of existence as process. Bakhtin admired Goethe's “heroic” struggle to introduce ideas of emergence and development into the natural sciences. He devotes much of an unfinished work on the Bildungsroman to a discussion of the feeling for historical time that enabled Goethe to perceive in the concretely visible not static existence but emergence, development, and history: “For [Goethe] contemporaneity—both in nature and in human life—is revealed as an essential multitemporality: as remnants and relics of various stages and formations of the past and as rudiments of stages in the more or less distant future.”42 Bakhtin's work on Goethe in the late 1930s coincided with and evidently influenced the writing of his doctoral thesis on Rabelais and the carnival vision of the world. As the misunderstood innovator explained to his examiners, he had aimed in his study “to catch existence in the process of becoming.”43

This emphasis on the unfinalizability of history and human beings stood in radical opposition to the dominant eschatological tendency of Russian thought which looked to some formula—whether sobornost or socialism—for a final resolution of all conflicts between essence and existence, the part and the whole. Herzen insisted that social and political forms must, like uniforms, “adapt willy-nilly to a living content”; if they do not, that is a sign that the given society lacks the freedom or the creative vitality to shape its own existence.44 Bakhtin writes in similar vein,

An individual cannot be completely incarnated into the flesh of existing sociohistorical categories. There is no mere form that would be able to incarnate once and forever all of his human possibilities and needs, no form in which he could exhaust himself down to the last word, like the tragic or epic hero; no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet at the same time not splash over the brim. There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness; there always remains a need for the future, and a place for this future must be found. All existing clothes are always too tight, and thus comical, on a man.45

Herzen had argued that we should be comforted, not distressed, by the empirical evidence that humanity was not programmed to reach a final state of harmony. If such a future could be predicted confidently, our lives would come to seem no more than shadowy anticipations of the fulfillment promised to future generations. The romantic longing for wholeness was equally foreign to Bakhtin's thought. He spoke not of alienation but of alterity (drugost)—not a fall from some Eden that would one day be regained, but an empirical state which had both limitations and advantages. No two bodies can simultaneously occupy the same place or see the same thing, nor can we ever see ourselves entirely; each of us in any given context has an “excess of seeing” with regard to others, whose perspectives can in turn supplement our view of ourselves. Bakhtin believed that this is a condition whose creative potential is to be celebrated. He deplores “the false tendency toward reducing everything to a single consciousness, toward dissolving in it the other's consciousness.”46 The overcoming of all tension and struggle, even if it were possible, would result in the creative impoverishment of humanity: “In what way would it enrich the event if I merged with the other, and instead of two there would now be only one? And what would I myself gain by the other's merging with me? If he did, he would see and know no more than what I see and know myself. … Let him rather remain outside of me, for in that position he can see and know what I myself do not see and do not know from my own place, and he can essentially enrich the event of my own life.”47

Human creative fulfillment does not come about through the synthesizing of points of view: “On the contrary, it consists in the intensification of one's own outsideness [vnenakhodimost] with respect to others, one's own distinctness from others: it consists in fully exploiting the privilege of one's own unique place outside other human beings.” This outsideness must be preserved if solidarity with others, expressed in ethical actions, is to be fruitful. A pure projection of myself into the other would represent no more than an infection with another's suffering. Aesthetic and ethical activity begins only when what we receive through our empathy with others is completed with elements of our own perspective. “Sympathetic understanding is not a mirroring, but a fundamentally and essentially new valuation, a utilization of my own architectonic position in being outside another's inner life.”48

Bakhtin rejected the claim that in order to understand a foreign culture one should seek to view the world wholly from its perspective: on the contrary, one's location outside a given culture permits one to uncover meanings and potential hidden from those within: “For one cannot really even see one's own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others.49 Through this process both the foreign culture and one's own are enriched in new and unexpected ways.

Bakhtin and Herzen both vigorously exploited the advantages of their outsideness in relation to Western culture. Herzen was equally opposed to the Slavophiles' belief that Russian culture should seal itself off from foreign influences and to the Russian Westernizers' demand that their country abandon its native institutions and merge culturally with the West. He believed that the great unsolved problem of the modern age—to discover a form of social organization that would combine the values of individual autonomy with social solidarity—could best be approached if Russia, with its still existing peasant communes, and the West, with its tradition of the defense of individual freedom, brought their differing perspectives to bear on each other's values and experience. His own outsider's reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of European political culture contain some profound perceptions, but he has had few listeners. In contrast, Bakhtin's studies of European literary genres and folk culture have become milestones in Western literary and cultural theory. He owed some of his most significant insights to his perspective as a thinker on the margins of his own society, who had lived through one of the two greatest revolutions of the modern age. Hence his affinities with another historical turning point, the early Renaissance, which he celebrates as a time when a creative thinker could exist simultaneously in different cultures and value systems, approaching each from the perspective of an outsider. He was fascinated with such thresholds and border zones, where norms and canons lose their force and language sheds that “hidden dogmatism” which follows from the strict demarcation of vocabularies. At such points in history, he maintained, creative freedom and inventiveness reach their height, expressed in images that are “completely new, self-criticizing, absolutely sober, fearless.”50

This last phrase signals a significant difference between the two thinkers. When Herzen writes of the fight against stultifying dogma and repressive authority, it is usually with specific reference to the contemporary situation in Russia or Europe, and he warns the reader not to believe that there are any easy solutions to real conflicts. When Bakhtin writes on the same theme it is often unclear whether he is talking about literature, life, or both, and this indeterminacy allows him to indulge in a degree of wishful thinking that Herzen would have dismissed as pure utopianism. The implied other in Bakhtin's dialogues has been described as being “as a rule benignly active, always at work to define us in ways we can live with and profit from.”51 Herzen's analysis of social struggle in France in 1848 and peasant revolts in Russia led him to question the realism of those who believed that any genuine dialogue was possible between the ideals of a cultured minority and the demands of a desperate, vengeful mass movement. We have seen that Bakhtin admitted that his benevolent depiction of carnival revolt had been deliberately one-sided in order to force home a philosophical point, but it can be argued that even on the level of theory his discussion would have benefited from a clear distinction between two fundamentally different ways in which humans have historically sought to free themselves from repressive authorities and norms. As Tzvetan Todorov puts it, “Dialogue favours the establishment of the individual, of the ‘Thou’ as much as the ‘I’; carnival dissolves the individual into the collective action of the crowd. Dialogue is choice and freedom, carnival demands submission to the group. Dialogue is order and sense, carnival chaos and orgy: dialogue is Apollo, carnival Dionysus.”52

Dialogue is Bakhtinian: Rabelaisian carnival is Bakuninist in its celebration of the creative force of the passion for destruction—a principle which (as Herzen often reminded Bakunin) was attractive in theory but usually catastrophic in historical application. Some Russian scholars have explained Bakhtin's apparent blindness to the violence of mass movements and their potential for abuse as the result of conditioning by the rhetoric of Stalinism.53 Certainly, it cannot easily be reconciled with his belief in the inalienable responsibility of individuals for their actions; but by far the greater part of his work is a consistent articulation of that belief. Despite his utopian propensities, Bakhtin's rejection of an alibi in Being set him squarely against the forms of imposture on which Stalin's tyranny relied.

As Caryl Emerson has observed, “Discrediting the absurd dichotomy between ‘system or nothing’” was Bakhtin's single major task.54 He distanced himself equally from relativism and dogmatism, pointing out that relativism made authentic dialogue about meanings and values unnecessary, while dogmatism made it impossible. But most commentaries on his work have tended to ignore his warnings about how not to categorize him. On the one hand, his ideas have been compared with those of relativists and neopragmatists like Richard Rorty;55 on the other, his thought is frequently approached as a coherent ideological system. On the basis of texts whose authorship remains disputed, he has been represented as a Marxist, a Freudian, a formalist, and a semiotician;56 while because he was a believer and associated with religious circles in the 1920s, his work is often approached as a coded theology. Parallels have been drawn between his thought and Orthodox religious philosophers, and with Buber, whom he is known to have admired. But the I-thou relationship in Buber's thought is grounded in an absolute Thou, whereas Bakhtin avoided discussion of ends and essences, focusing exclusively on processes in time and space. His concept of moral responsibility did not exclude the possibility of God but did not require a deity as the source of moral norms. For the same reason, attempts to interpret dialogism and even carnival as expressions of the traditional concept of sobornost, while impressively ingenious, do not carry conviction.57 We long to believe that the meaning of our lives will not end with their factual existence, but “in being there are no guarantees of the ought-to-be,” he wrote in the 1920s.58

Herzen frequently complained of being identified with systems that he opposed or, alternatively, of being represented as a pessimistic nihilist. He attributed these misunderstandings to his critics' persistence in interpreting his thought with the aid of the very categories that it was intended to subvert. Bakhtin, as we have seen, was engaged in a similar form of subversion, attempting to articulate a new way of describing the world—to which (as the most probing studies of his work have recognized) familiar dichotomies, such as rationalism/irrationalism, do not apply. The philosopher G. L. Tulchinsky describes Bakhtin's thought as a fundamentally other approach to reason and logic (inoratsionalnost) which rejects the teleological and programmatic interpretation of rationality as optimal effectiveness in the realization of preset goals; Bakhtin, he argues, is rational according to different criteria of effectiveness, rooted in the ancient idea of the harmonious wholeness of the Cosmos, which approach the world as “the reciprocal supplementarity of unrepeatable individualities.”59 In an article of 1976 the eminent classicist and philosopher S. S. Averintsev described Bakhtin as a “wisdom-lover among the specialists,” who resisted the dehumanizing effects of the obsession with methodology in the humanities, offering instead “philosophical anthropology,” the “ability to see the literary word as a human word.”60

Bakhtin admired Averintsev, whose description of the study of symbols he cites in support of his own approach to methodology in the humanities: “not an unscientific, but a differently scientific [inonauchnaia] form of knowledge that has its own internal laws and criteria for precision”—a description that has been greeted as particularly appropriate to Bakhtin's own thinking.61

Herzen had the same kind of inoratsionalnost and inonauka in mind when he wrote in 1859, “There is not one kind of reason, there are two: the reason of the world that is going down like the evening sun does not coincide with the reason of the world that is rising like the dawn.62 He and Bakhtin were among that avant-garde of thinkers who since the mid-nineteenth century have focused their attention on the erosion of faith in teleological systems and the ways it must affect our understanding of the world and of human relations. They both belonged to an even more select subset who were undismayed by the challenge of having to justify contingent existence without reference to first causes or final ends. Schopenhauer reacted to the role of chance in history by declaring all phenomenal existence worthless, while Nietzsche responded to it with his tragic “pessimism of strength.63 But Herzen and Bakhtin wholeheartedly welcomed the discrediting of teleological thinking as a belated rehabilitation of the “world of earthly beauty” which idealists had disfigured, devalued, and despised for so many centuries. They did not believe that a genuinely scientific approach to the human personality would deny or diminish its value. To the narrow dogmatists among the Russian Left, who appealed to scientific method to justify their contempt for people and ideas that did not conform to their a priori systems, Herzen retorted that true science “even more than the Gospel teaches us humility. She cannot look down on anything, she does not know what superiority means, she despises nothing, never lies for the sake of a pose. … Science is love.” Instead of seeking to impose their political recipes on the masses, the Left should attentively study the existing values and aspirations of those whose lives they sought to improve: “Manna does not fall from the sky, as it does in children's fairy tales; it grows up from the soil. … Learn to listen to the grass growing and don't lecture it on how to form ears of wheat.”64

“Lovelessness, indifference,” Bakhtin wrote, “will never be able to generate sufficient power to slow down and linger intently over an object, to hold and sculpt every detail and particular in it, however minute. Only love is capable of being aesthetically productive.”65 Aesthetic love was the defining characteristic of his and Herzen's approach to the world—as is also true of the third great innovator treated in this book: Chekhov, who, like the character in his story who aspired to “keep pace with everything,” was lovingly attentive to the inexhaustible diversity of natural phenomena and human character. Bakhtin wrote in his old age of his “love for variations and for a diversity of terms for a single phenomenon. The multiplicity of focuses.”66 Apart from occasional excursions into utopian optimism, he remained faithful throughout his life to the views expressed in his early essay on art and answerability: “Inspiration that ignores life and is itself ignored by life is not inspiration but a state of possession,” while on the other hand the person who complains that great art has no relevance to his humdrum daily existence “ought to know that the fruitlessness of art is due to his unwillingness to be exacting and to the unseriousness of the concerns in his life.”67

Bakhtin's, Herzen's, and Chekhov's aesthetic approach to life was no hazy, all-embracing benevolence: it demanded an attention to the “humble prose of living”68 (Bakhtin's term) that was far more exacting and serious than the attitude of those who relied on ready-made rules to guide their actions. Herzen often remarked on the depth of the human fear of freedom: the last thing we rely on is ourselves. The absence of universal norms opens up terrifying vistas: we can advance in any direction or remain stationary, with no certainty as to the outcome of any of our choices, knowing only that they will matter. Science has shown the world to be neither system nor chaos: open and largely unpredictable but not a directionless flux. Our every act has consequences that will affect the unitary texture of existence. It is therefore our moral responsibility to develop a sense of aesthetic measure and balance that will allow us to combine a coherence in our responses with an openness to the specific contours of individual situations and human personalities that will elicit their potential without demanding of them what they cannot give.

According to the testimony of their contemporaries, Herzen, Chekhov, and Bakhtin each possessed this sense of measure to a remarkable degree. It was expressed most clearly in their dislike of all forms of bullying and of the doctrinaire intolerance that seeks to force life down one path rather than considering the value of alternative ways of living and seeing. Chekhov speaks for all three when he reserves his most severe criticism for the “lazy, philosophizing, cold” type of intellectuals who “are ready to deny everything, because it is easier for a lazy brain to deny than to affirm.”69


  1. C. Emerson, The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (Princeton, 1997). As will become evident, this chapter is greatly indebted to Emerson's book.

  2. V. L. Makhlin, “Nasledie M. M. Bakhtina v kontekste zapadnogo postmodernizma,” eds. L. A. Gogotishvili and P. S. Gurevich, M. M. Bakhtin kak filosof (Moscow, 1992), 209-10.

  3. G. S. Morson and C. Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford, 1990), 23-32.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (Moscow, 1979), 314.

  5. Like earlier Russian moralists Bakhtin is an object of reverence among many Russian intellectuals as an ethical mentor: Georgii Gachev, one of the group who discovered him in the 1960s, relates that he became for them “something like a living church.” Emerson, Bakhtin, 50.

  6. MB [Mikhail Bakhtin], The Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin, 1981), 354, 293, 357, 410; MB, Problemy, 193.

  7. MB, Problemy, 126, 141.

  8. Ibid., 141, 193, 195.

  9. For a survey of criticism on these themes, see Emerson, Bakhtin, chaps. 3, 4. She notes that at the Bakhtin Centennial Conference nobody, neither Russians nor non-Russians, devoted a paper to Bakhtin on Dostoevsky (134).

  10. See ibid., 94-96.

  11. See Terry Eagleton's interpretation of Bakhtinian carnival as “a political weapon against ruling-class idealism's paranoid fear of the flesh” (“Bakhtin, Schopenhauer, Kundera,” eds. K. Hirschkop and D. Shepherd, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory [Manchester, 1989], 180); and see Holquist's view that Bakhtin introduces a “kink” into traditional Marxist categories which has the potential for renewing socialist thought. Holquist argues that such critics as Eagleton and Fredric Jameson have demonstrated convincingly that Bakhtin “can serve as an armoury of conceptual weapons that will advance the cause of Leftist social analysis” (R. Barsky and M. Holquist, eds., Bakhtin and Otherness: Discours social/Social Discourse, vol. 3, nos. 1-2 [1990]). In contrast, the Soviet scholar Viktor Shklovsky accused Bakhtin in 1970 of not defining the political targets of carnival laughter sufficiently precisely. See Emerson, Bakhtin, 104-05.

  12. MB, Rabelais and His World, trans. H. Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 94.

  13. MB, Problemy, 155, 184, 168-69.

  14. Cited by J. Frank, “Lunacharsky was impressed,” London Review of Books, 19 February 1998, 20.

  15. Caryl Emerson argues that carnival for Bakhtin “is simply a name given to that moment of enablement—inevitably transitory—during which the self feels itself to be an agent in the world, that moment when a human being no longer feels helpless, nor prays, nor begs” (Bakhtin, 103).

  16. From the stenographic transcription of Bakhtin's dissertation defense (cited in ibid., 95).

  17. See the discussion of such parallels in V. Liapunov's notes to MB, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, trans. and annotated by V. Liapunov, ed. M. Holquist and V. Liapunov (Austin, 1993).

  18. Herzen's name occurs very rarely in the context of discussions of Bakhtin. Two exceptions are Morson and Emerson, who mention Herzen as a representative of the tradition of Russian anti-ideological thinkers to which they believe Bakhtin belongs (Mikhail Bakhtin, 23); and K. G. Isupov, who points to (but does not discuss) a resemblance between Bakhtin's and Herzen's approaches to ethics as moral creativity. “Ot estetiki zhizni k estetike istorii (Traditsii russkoi filosofii u M. M. Bakhtina),” M. M. Bakhtin kak filosof, 70.

  19. MB, Rabelais, 59; SS [A. I Herzen, Sobranie sochinenii, 30 vols. (Moscow, 1954-66)], 13:190.

  20. SS, 5:89.

  21. MB, Problemy, 191.

  22. See above, chap. 2.

  23. MB, Problemy, 191; Rabelais, 95, 122-23.

  24. MB, Rabelais, 94.

  25. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 50-51.

  26. M. Holquist, ed., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin, 1981), 85.

  27. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 6, 40, 41, 52.

  28. SS, 11:248, 252.

  29. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 27, 37; Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. V. McGee, ed. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin, 1986), 139.

  30. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 19.

  31. Ibid., 20, 53, 30-31.

  32. Ibid., 31.

  33. OS [A. I. Herzen, From the Other Shore and The Russian People and Socialism, trans. M. Budberg and R. Wollheim (Oxford, 1979)], 38, 24.

  34. MB, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, ed. M. Holquist and V. Liapunov, trans. and annotated by V. Liapunov (Austin, 1990), 2.

  35. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 54.

  36. K. Clark, M. Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 64.

  37. See Morson's and Emerson's discussion of the significance of this concept in Bakhtin's theory of the novel form (Mikhail Bakhtin, chap. 8), and their own use of the term “prosaics” to characterize Bakhtin's thought (ibid., 15-36).

  38. MB, The Dialogic Imagination, 331, 250, 84.

  39. See Clark and Holquist, Bakhtin, 66-67.

  40. MB, The Dialogic Imagination, 327.

  41. Ibid., 84.

  42. MB, Speech Genres, 28.

  43. Cited in Emerson, Bakhtin, 96.

  44. SS, 19:191.

  45. MB, The Dialogic Imagination, 37.

  46. MB, Art and Answerability, 22-27; Speech Genres, 141.

  47. MB, Art and Answerability, 87.

  48. Ibid., 88, 103.

  49. MB, Speech Genres, 7.

  50. MB, Rabelais, 472.

  51. Morson and Emerson, Bakhtin, 470. The authors observe that “Bakhtin presumes no absolute conflict between an organism and its surroundings, just as he presumes no conflict in principle between self and society” (ibid.).

  52. T. Todorov, “I, Thou, Russia,” Times Literary Supplement, 13 March 1998, 7.

  53. See Emerson, Bakhtin, 169-71.

  54. Ibid., 71.

  55. See ibid., 276n13.

  56. The texts in question—P. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, V. Voloshinov's Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (a work on semiotics), as well as a number of articles by Voloshinov and Medvedev—are all avowedly Marxist and at odds with Bakhtin's fundamental opposition to “theoretism.” On the controversy over their authorship and the reasons for the practice of attributing these works to Bakhtin, see Morson and Emerson, Bakhtin, 100-19. In my view their analysis demonstrates conclusively that Bakhtin was not the author of the disputed works.

  57. See G. Gachev's view, based on acquaintance with Bakhtin in the 1960s: “In Bakhtin's understanding of sobornost … everyone gazes not upward, toward heaven, nor forward, at the priest or the altar, but at one another, realizing the kenosis of God, on the low horizontal level that is our own.” Emerson, Bakhtin, 158-59. On religious interpretations of his concept of carnival, see ibid., 172-79. See also Emerson, “Russian Orthodoxy and the Early Bakhtin,” Religion and Literature 22, no. 2-3 (1990): 109-31. She describes Bakhtin's religion as “a very uncertain entity” (113).

  58. MB, Art and Answerability, 128. Bakhtin defines faith as “need and hope … non-self-contentment and … possibility” (ibid, 144).

  59. G. L. Tul'chinskii, “Dvazhdy ‘otstavshii’ M. Bakhtin: postupochnost' i inoratsional'nost' bytiia,” M. M. Bakhtin i filosofskaia kul'tura XX veka. Problemy bakhtinologii, part 1 (St. Petersburg, 1991), 59.

  60. Cited by Emerson, Bakhtin, 112.

  61. MB, Speech Genres, 160. See Emerson's Afterword on the prospects for Bakhtin's “inonauka”: Bakhtin, 264ff.

  62. SS, 14:107.

  63. F. Nietzsche, Werke in Drei Bänden, ed. K. Schlechta (Munich, 1954-56), 1:9.

  64. SS, 20:345, 16:27.

  65. MB, Philosophy of the Act, 64.

  66. MB, Speech Genres, 155 (from notes made in 1970-71).

  67. MB, Art and Answerability, 2.

  68. Ibid., 1.

  69. AC [Anton Chekhov] to A. S. Suvorin, 27 December 1889. Polnoe sobranie (Pis'ma), 3:309.

Caryl Emerson (lecture date 30 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Emerson, Caryl. “Bakhtin After the Boom: Pro and Contra.” Journal of European Studies 32, no. 124 (March 2002): 3-26.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture on 30 October 2001, Emerson reviews controversies in Bahktinian scholarship, provides insight into Bakhtin as a teacher and reader of texts, and speculates on possible future directions for Bakhtin studies.]

My topic today is the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) and the contours of his posthumous life. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed an explosion of interest in Bakhtin, a thinker who hitherto had been almost wholly unknown outside his native land. Indeed, in Soviet Russia itself he was ‘discovered’ only in the early 1960s, already an old man teaching in a pedagogical institute in the provinces, with one major publication to his name (1929), a dissertation defended after the Second World War, and a trunk of manuscripts stretching over fifty years. Suddenly translations proliferated, intermediaries emerged to explain them, a biography was heroically pieced together—and Bakhtin's categories spread like wildfire through the academies of the world, encouraging literary critics and cultural theorists to rethink familiar terrain in terms of dialogue, carnival, chronotope. None of those concepts were completely new, nor were any of them especially precise. But to a much greater extent than the earlier booms in structuralism, deconstruction and post-structuralism, Bakhtin was accessible—and palpable. Although his writing style could not be called elegant, it swarmed with living, moving consciousnesses. Bakhtin did resemble the structuralist thinkers in his love for overarching binaries, categorical generalizations, and the clever diagram, yet readers did not feel especially oppressed or depersonalized by these geometries. At times it even seemed that Bakhtin purposely set up a binary so that it would not stand, so that he could reveal both sides as equally, fatally deficient. His best arguments were made or broken not on abstract metaphysics but on bodies and voices.

Most importantly, it was clear that Bakhtin had no interest in undermining the tools of his trade. In this, he was being true to the conservative, custodial approach to high culture characteristic of the Soviet literary establishment in the 1930s through the 1950s. Russian intellectuals of that time were so harassed, so accustomed to political intervention and violence against both poetry and poets, that they valued this martyred aesthetic sphere to an extraordinary degree and lived a good deal of their real lives within its precious space. Quite understandably, they were not easily persuaded that the primary resources of literature were somehow suspect or impotent. Ideologies which decreed that the word could not hold meaning, or that the author could not realize an intent, or that we are governed not by consciousness but by obscure, uncontrollable, pre-scripted impulses, were slower to catch on in Soviet Russia—and not only because of state-mandated Marxist-Leninist-humanist constraints on texts and methodologies. Bakhtin belonged to a generation of literary professionals that believed in the literary word as an indestructible, almost sacred thing. This high status lent both the literary word, and the author who employed that word, a certain spiritual autonomy. During the Stalinist years, many Russian literary scholars became excellent textologists, literary historians, and translators, because the general feeling was that in times of very great trouble, the most vulnerable and valuable dialogues to preserve were not the so-called ‘relevant’ ones, that is, discussions about the text such as routinely crop up with every new generation of readers or critics (communications of that sort were bound to be capricious, manipulated, unfree) but rather the dialogues that were already fixed inside the work, those taking place between author and text, or among the created characters within the fictional world. In any event, it was imperative to save the artwork from falling victim to the time and space that surrounded it.

I emphasize this Russian context for Bakhtin, because by and large such a custodial attitude toward art has not answered to the experience or priorities of the sunnier academies in the West. During the years preceding the Bakhtin boom, we had been dazzled by a contrary set of operations: suspect the intentions of the artist, elevate the critic, interrogate the tools, and encourage as much leakage between artwork and world as you can—because it was relevance, not custodial reverence, that would best serve the interests of culture and society. Since Sartre in the late 1940s, the pendulum had swung between ‘engaged literature’, answering resolutely to the anguish of its time, and literary production perceived as entirely disengaged, even as disabled, caught up in the contradictions of language itself. Thus the advent of Bakhtin's rich, self-sufficient voice felt like a sort of liberation from these two theoretically pure extremes, a return to the ‘real thing’. Here was a theorist clearly in love with literature for its own sake, literature as a primary nutrient, who never tired of reminding us of all those thousands of years during which the fictional text has served as a storage-vault for human voice and consciousness. Literature was an act of courage. Barren abstract philosophy was out; a hermeneutics of suspicion was on the retreat. Without appearing naïve or ridiculous, it was again becoming possible to trust.1

I will return at the end of this talk to the nature of Bakhtin's trust, because it is a curious phenomenon, one that survives both the subversions of carnival and the chipping away of authorial perogatives in polyphony. Let it suffice for now that at the centre of Bakhtin's system was trust in the word. In the 1920s, Bakhtin shared with both Futurism and progressive Marxism an insistence that art be proactive, unsettling, transfigurative, capable of estranging and revivifying the world. In the early years of Soviet power, Bakhtin and his circle contributed to this pro-active public trend, which Bakhtin kept alive until the end of his life as one of the central truths of his beloved carnival. Later, in the more cautious Stalinist era, Bakhtin shifted ground. Art's most valuable purpose became its potential for providing a refuge for individual consciousness—whence the celebration of the novel, with its distinction of being the only modern literary genre designed to be both composed, and consumed, alone. As Charles Lock has recently argued, the triumph of the mute novel over the noisy declaimed genres was a revolutionary milestone in the privatization of experience.2 With a novel in hand, ‘the reading body makes for itself a private non-collective space’; since novelistic discourse resists any easy or unambiguous voicing, communities that once had gathered ‘around a text read aloud, now disintegrate: one person, one text’ (p. 74). At last, a genre is born that subverts the social order by allowing the ‘eruption of the unspeakable’ into discourse (p. 75). Lock concludes his essay by suggesting that the novel as a genre ‘liberates us as civic and domestic subjects from the duties and burdens of rational conversation, and reconstitutes us in ways yet to be understood: subjects without obligation to enunciate’ (p. 85). In the bourgeois West, such an option might seem quite unmarked and even humdrum. In Stalinist Russia, of course, where a failure to join the chorus could itself be the crime that cost you your life, it was heroic and potentially heretic. In a word, Bakhtin seemed to offer something for all seasons. He was the patron saint of engagement and subversion as well as silence, of communality as well as privacy. His arrival on the critical scene felt like a return of the old values in a thrillingly new, more flexible synthesis.

Now, three decades after his Western debut, Bakhtin has become a classic. He is massively anthologized, taught in graduate seminars the world over, pursued in half a dozen journals devoted solely to his work, and already well ‘institutionalized’ (a Bakhtin Centre has been founded at the University of Sheffield, and to date ten international conferences have been devoted to Bakhtin's work, the last of which took place in July 2001 in the northern Polish city of Gdagnsk). The extant translations of Bakhtin, which regrettably are full of inconsistencies and errors, are being corrected and standardized—and, as part of a huge cyber-project at the Centre, Bakhtin is well on his way to being established authoritatively on-line. His collected works in seven volumes are slowly emerging from Moscow, under the general editorship of Sergei Bocharov (volume 5 was published in 1996, volume 2 in 2000; the remaining volumes, optimistically, have been promised before 2003). In the fastidious tradition of Soviet textology, every archival scrap is perused and commented upon. No major new books have been uncovered in the archive, but the genesis of those we do have is being reconstructed and Bakhtin's sources cautiously investigated. It turns out that almost every text we have translated was, to a greater or lesser degree, corrupt.

Two clarifications, forthcoming in volumes 3 and 4, promise to be of special interest. The first is Bakhtin's huge study of the ‘Bildungsroman and its Significance in the History of Realism’, a project shrouded in mystery. One of the most durable Bakhtin stories still in circulation is that this manuscript was ‘smoked away’ by the chain-smoking Bakhtin, who, as an impecunious exile, could not afford cigarette papers during the 1930s, or (in a supplementary legend) that its page proofs were bombed out of existence at the beginning of the Second World War. This book, it now seems, was never finished at all. Volume 3 of the collected works will contain all of its extant drafts and archival traces. And, second, there are the three versions of the Rabelais study—1940, 1950 and 1965—each different, and each with its own ratio of literary history to carnival theory to plain old pleasurable obscenity. (Apparently it was this ubiquitous, exuberant obscenity in the earlier versions, rather than any strictly theoretical indiscretions, that caused the Soviet authorities to postpone and censor the manuscript for so many years.) All three versions of Bakhtin's book on Rabelais will be published separately in the huge, two-part volume 4.

So the mass of strictly scholarly material surrounding Bakhtin has grown to enormous size, as befits the apparatus accompanying a ‘classic’. But because scientific precision applied to a popular figure always involves debunking and demythologizing, the Bakhtin cult and industry, as it grows, is being slowly disciplined and cleansed of its accretions. Legends and mysteries are being replaced by documented events, big claims are whittled down, and ideas credited to Bakhtin are being restored to their original owners. In Ken Hirschkop's engaging phrase, ‘For a long time we knew very little about Bakhtin's life. Thanks to the efforts of post-glasnost Bakhtin scholarship, we know even less.’3 Now that the boom has levelled off, what's left on the ground? What issues remain most productive? How have the hot spots around Bakhtin shifted over the years? My personal speculation, as an old ‘Bakhtin hand’, on these questions will be the substance of the remainder of this talk.

The ‘hot spots’ first. Several areas caused scandals—real turf wars—in the 1980s, which have now either ended in a draw or moved their indignation elsewhere. Primary among these quarrels was ‘who wrote what’: the question of the ‘disputed texts’. Did Bakhtin in the mid-1920s simply hand over to his friends Pavel Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov three very good manuscripts as ‘gifts’ to be published under their names (to Medvedev a book criticizing Formalism, and to Voloshinov a screed against Freud, followed by a very impressive text on the philosophy of language)? Or were these manuscripts in some way ‘co-authored’ efforts? Since Medvedev and Voloshinov were sincere Marxists, and Bakhtin himself relied very little on Marxism for the fundamental tenets of his worldview, how one answered this question had serious ideological consequences. To this day, the evidence remains inconclusive. But two things can be said about this debate. First, a crudely satirical anti-Marxist reflex, popular during the early, angry post-communist 1990s in both Russia and abroad, is no longer in fashion. Bakhtin's trademark intellectual tolerance and his ability to appreciate and absorb a multitude of languages has at last begun to infect scholarship on this topic. Just as Bakhtin was no Freudian but nevertheless acknowledged the creative power of Freudian vocabulary because, in his view, every great thinker adds something new to the potential of the word, so was he no Marxist—but he respected its potency as an ‘idea-horizon’ and a provocative organizer of concepts.4 Recent research suggests that the early Bakhtin, in company with thinkers as diverse as Nicolas Berdyaev and Georg Simmel, fully acknowledged the value of Marxism as social criticism (especially its charismatic concept of alienation); what they rejected was Marxism's thoroughgoing materialism.5 In January 1999, one sober review of the Bakhtin-and-Marxism question in the Russian press put it this way: all attempts to ‘cleanse Bakhtin from any suspicion of inner inclinations to Marxism, whether direct or oblique … have been failures’, and are untrue to his temperament as well as to the times in which he lived.6

So: Bakhtin's own inclusive, ‘all sides are partly true’ cast of mind is having a benign effect on the old feuds. In a complementary move, thanks in large part to the scrupulous scholarship of Galin Tihanov, attention has been re-focused away from the contentious Marxist connection in Bakhtin and toward the Hegel connection—which is less partisan, more speculative, and indisputably profound.7 But the second thing that must be said about the ‘authorship debates’ is far more awkward than whether or not Bakhtin's purported Marxism was a mask. Namely, grounds for that debate have shifted from the manuscripts and ideas that Bakhtin generously gifted to others, an image compatible with the hagiography of Soviet-era martyrs, to the ideas—indeed, to the verbatim paragraphs and pages—that Bakhtin appropriated, without credit, from others, and wrote up as his own. Most of these others turn out to be luminaries in the German philosophical and philological tradition, a language and culture Bakhtin knew intimately from childhood. They include Max Weber, Max Scheler, Broder Christensen, Friedrich Spielhagen, Georg Simmel and most egregiously Ernst Cassirer, whose powerful theses on the Renaissance and its carnival-body worldview Bakhtin simply downloaded silently into his own texts.8 The Bakhtin archive contains abundant pages of pure translation, as well as rough paraphrase, from German into Russian, which Bakhtin apparently incorporated into his working notebooks.

These ‘immoral borrowings’ have caused real distress in the field. Especially unattractive is Bakhtin's piracy of a Jewish intellectual from Nazi Germany such as Cassirer, persecuted, blacklisted and then in exile during the inter-war years. Accusations of plagiarism and suspicions of intellectual theft are such that some Bakhtinians have gone on the defensive. Two Danish scholars recently remarked, with some impatience, that Michel Foucault often handled his sources in a comparable manner, but in Foucault's case the technique is celebrated as a ‘philosophical masquerade’; but ‘when the same technique is discovered in Bakhtin, it has been taken as a sign of scientific and ethical shortcomings’.9 This comparison with a high guru of French cultural theory is instructive. For all that Bakhtin might talk of tricksters and jesters, and for all that he is said to have remarked, sadly, in the early 1970s that he had been ‘no better than his time’ and that everything, everything produced on that soil and under those skies was a distortion, a betrayal of homeland and culture,10 the fact is: we do expect Russian literature, and Russian critics, to be morally better than their time—and we more easily exempt other nationalities from this requirement. In a Russian context, it appears, even carnival trickery must be heroic and highminded.

The second ‘hot spot’ upon which some progress has been made is not political or ethical but more a matter of definition. Was Bakhtin at heart a literary scholar and critic (what the Russians call a filolog, a philologist), or a philosopher? At the end of his life, in his conversations with the Soviet Mayakovsky scholar Viktor Duvakin, Bakhtin claimed that he had always been the latter: ‘more a philosopher than a philologist—and such I have remained to the present day. I am a philosopher, a thinker [myslitel']’.11 He also let drop the remark that literary criticism was to a certain extent a ‘parasitical profession’.12 This issue matters not for professional ‘c.v.’ reasons (Bakhtin never took such official labels seriously), but because of its impact on the famous, and at times famously eccentric, literary readings that Bakhtin produced: of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Rabelais, Goethe. If Bakhtin drew these master novelists into his worldview largely to illustrate a philosophical thesis, then we could excuse the occasional counter-intuitive conclusion that emerged on the literary front. For much here is open to dispute. There is, for example, Bakhtin's famous claim in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics that Leo Tolstoy was everywhere ‘monolithically monologic’, and that Dostoevsky was so thoroughly polyphonic that he did not care about plot, did not register a unified worldview in his novels, and was not successful in embedding there any authoritative voices.13 Bakhtin's surviving fragment on Goethe, entitled ‘The Bildungsroman and its Significance in the History of Realism’, suggests that the great German writer valued above all ‘organic vision’.14 Likewise Nikolai Gogol, in a chapter excised from the Rabelais dissertation, is reduced largely to a practitioner of carnival.15 On the question of Rabelais as author it is difficult to criticize Bakhtin, to be sure, for in his study of that author's work there is hardly any mention of the formal act of narrating at all: Bakhtin focuses entirely on themes (the grotesque body, holiday feasts, public-square profanity), on folklore motifs—more Russian than French, it must be said—and on carnival plenitude. In the face of such simplifications, and given the force of Bakhtin's own quite monologically intoned pronouncements about the authors he cares about, a great deal of effort has gone into rehabilitating these writers and restoring to them the complexity that Bakhtin trims away. For how can one call the ingeniously multivalent, stratified and genuinely developmental world of War and Peace ‘monologic’? Or suggest, as Bakhtin does, that since Book Six of The Brothers Karamazov, ‘The Russian Monk’, is unapologetically authoritative, it therefore ‘falls out of the work’16—when Dostoevsky himself slaved over Book Six, considering it to be the spiritual core of the novel? How can the black comedy of Gogol be reduced to joy-bearing carnival? Or, for that matter, how can the Faustian striving of Goethe's major plots be reduced, as Bakhtin is wont to reduce them, to some ‘utopian pastoral’, where readers need only open their eyes and gaze upon the scene and the world will again become an integrated, harmonious place?17 These are all substantial worries for those votaries of Bakhtin whose main concern is literature.

If, however, these world-class writers served Bakhtin more as raw material, as ‘value systems’ which could be raided, intelligently but selectively, to adorn philosophical ideas precious to him, then we can fret less over these verdicts. If the real goal of multi-voicedness is inner flexibility and freedom, and the real goal of carnival generosity is outer flexibility and freedom, then any functioning human world, real or fictional, can be mined for examples of it. Interdisciplinarity inevitably exploits one field on behalf of the other. Responsible Bakhtin scholars, so this argument goes, should worry less about the ‘full picture of an author and a work’ that Bakhtin routinely fails to provide and speculate instead on the contribution made by that author and work to Bakhtin's larger, freestanding worldview. An excellent recent example of such research is Vladimir Nikiforov's work on Bakhtin's ‘first philosophy’.18 Nikiforov begins with moral philosophy—in this case, with Bakhtin's insistence on an ethically uncompromised, irreversible, radically answerable ‘step taken’ (postupok) appropriate to the lost individual in a ruined post-Great War world—and from the urgency of that search he deduces Bakhtin's exaggerated claim, in the 1929 Dostoevsky book, that Dostoevsky's heroes exist in a vacuum, that they have no personal histories, that they confront eternal questions in no-time and no-space, and that they circulate in a text where ‘plot … is absolutely devoid of any sort of finalizing function’.19 Such a philosophically driven reading, incidentally, would be in keeping with Bakhtin's own reputed (and quite unfair) auto-critique of his pathbreaking work on Dostoevsky, which he later regarded as ‘morally unfree’, limited as it was to formal questions and of necessity excluding religious contexts.20

The attempt to separate Bakhtin's literary-philological pronouncements from his philosophy can also be pursued, however, from the other end. To do so would require some access to Bakhtin's literary judgements ‘straight’, before he attempted to prove a philosophy of Logos through them. And here we have some fascinating, if indirect, documentation. Among the extremely interesting material to appear in the most recent volume of Bakhtin's collected works (volume 2, 2000) are the complete texts of notes taken by one of Bakhtin's most diligent and loyal students, Rakhil' Moiseevna Mirkina (1906-87), during the ‘Home Course of Lectures on the History of Russian Literature’ that the unemployed Bakhtin delivered sporadically between 1922 and 1927 in various private apartments, first in Vitebsk, Belarus, and later in post-Civil War Leningrad.

To be sure, one never knows how much is lost between the lecturer's mouth and the note-taker's pen. What is more, Mirkina recopied her notes four times between 1927 and the 1970s, each time discarding the earlier copy (in this way the notes survived the siege of Leningrad, while the old school notebooks crumbled away).21 But there is a good chance that the conscientious Mirkina got down a lot of the actual words. We know that Bakhtin had a prodigious memory and a highly polished lecturing style: he was never chatty, not at all dialogic, and rarely distracted by local context. (Bakhtin's disciple and literary executor Sergei Bocharov later recalled Bakhtin's ‘well-trained voice, audible throughout a large auditorium’, and his ‘classic professorial manner’ of delivering lectures ‘with all the appropriate gravity’.22) Bakhtin would formally address his audience—whether of hundreds of persons, as in a Saransk lecture hall, or in the case of the ‘Home Course’, of three schoolgirls—in a resonant, authoritative, distanced manner, using no notes.23 What Mirkina's transcripts allow us to glimpse is Bakhtin speaking on Russian literature prior to devising his philosophical categories of monologue versus dialogue, single- versus double-voiced word. Tolstoy here is simply Tolstoy, not some sort of ‘anti-Dostoevsky’. And Dostoevsky's fictional worlds are described not by means of a line or two of dialogue casually extracted from the whole, nor by some meta-philosophical polyphonic strategy, but in a more conventional manner, work by work, profiling the heroes and outlining the plots. Bakhtin functions here not as a philosophical critic undertaking a holy crusade for the novel but as a practical, hands-on undergraduate teacher of literature—and the ideas for which he later became famous are scarcely hinted at.

To give you some idea of this ‘pedagogical Bakhtin’, that is, Bakhtin before he discovered dialogic relations or carnival laughter and began seeking in them the salvation of the world, let me remark on two writerly portraits recorded in Mirkina's notes: the first of Dostoevsky (MMB:SS [M. M. Bakhtin: Sobranie sochinenii,] vol. 2: pp. 266-87), the second of Tolstoy (pp. 238-65). From the transcripts, it seems clear that before he took the ‘linguistic turn’, Bakhtin was an open-minded, even-handed reader of these two master novelists and rivals. After that brilliant turn, of course, Dostoevsky is credited with polyphony and polyphony is equated with freedom—and at that point Tolstoy (together with the epic voice in general) comes to stand for a sort of bondage, and falls out of Bakhtin's favoured world.

So: first Dostoevsky. The Mirkina notes begin with the observation that Dostoevsky used ideas the way most writers use emotions. Ideas are much more difficult to build with. Whereas emotions unfold in a familiar sequence and their effects can be watched from the outside, an author working with ideas really does not know, and cannot know, where that idea is going. Portraying the process of a thought must be done from the inside. Since in novels there are many different thought centres developing at once, the author who works with ideas must get his own consciousness out of the way as quickly as possible and pull the reader into the interior of his heroes; this is why, Bakhtin says, we so often cannot imagine the exterior appearance of Dostoevsky's heroes, we cannot see them. ‘We must either be in the hero, or close the book’ (p. 266). For this reason too, Dostoevsky's novels are such failures on the dramatic stage: drama requires well-lit, well-populated spaces viewed from the hall, but in Dostoevsky there is a ‘dark scene with voices, nothing more’ (p. 267). Bakhtin concludes that Dostoevsky is basically an impressionist, never providing us with whole objects but only with impressions from objects. Thus ‘we [readers] jump from soul to soul, and the object begins to ripple, it becomes illusory and is deprived of all stability’ (ibid.).

What is immediately clear from this thumbnail sketch of Dostoevsky's art is that Bakhtin builds it almost entirely out of spatial and body imagery, ‘where we must stand to see another person’, which was very important to him in the early 1920s. It is also evident that Bakhtin already understands the idea not as something facelessly analytic, ‘unfoldable’ on its own terms, but fused with personality and unexpected potential. Although there are indications that ideas will sooner or later become the heroes of the Dostoevskian novel—as indeed they do by 1929, in Problems of Dostoevsky's Art—little attention is paid, in these lecture notes, to what the heroes utter, or how they utter it.

The lectures on Tolstoy are more exciting. In part this is because they are longer; Bakhtin devoted four sessions to Tolstoy, the ‘farewell lectures’ in his Vitebsk series (1924), after which the ‘Home Course’ resumed again in Leningrad in the fall of 1925 with Dostoevsky. In part it is because, elsewhere in Bakhtin's writings, Tolstoy is so under-appreciated and reduced. But here, too, little fuss is made over the structure of utterances or narrators, whether polyphonic—‘innerly persuasive’ or authoritative. Thus Tolstoy's hyper-serious, preachy tone does not turn Bakhtin off. He is hearkening to something else. And what he is after, it appears, is the source of Tolstoy's solitary, anarchic worldview. This turns out to be an ethically awkward space, the product of Tolstoy's condemnation of official institutions (a standard anarchist move) without the accompanying compensatory faith, which lies at the base of most anarchisms, in voluntarism, mutual aid, benevolent collectivist activity—in a word, without faith in the concrete reciprocating Other. Tolstoy's mature ideal denies the efficacy and reliability of both sides: both the entitled institution and the needy, deserving, singular other who is offering us love. We should learn to do without both. And here Mirkina's notes show Bakhtin to be a very astute (if harsh) reader of Tolstoy.

Bakhtin opens his Tolstoy lectures on one of his sturdiest oppositions, devised in the early 1920s as a tool for understanding how each of us assembles an individual self. This is our awareness of two basically different structures co-existing within our minds: an I-for-myself (how I look and feel from inside to my own consciousness) and an I-for-the-other (how I look from the outside to someone else).24I-for-myself is constantly in flux and thus is unreliable as a source of stories that would explain myself to my self; for this reason, Bakhtin writes, every self must put itself together out of bits of ‘finished surface’ that others provide and project on to it. Bakhtin insists that in matters of identity and self-worth, we always work with others' views of us. Looking in the mirror is a fiction. The only way to see myself ‘as I am’ is to see myself as others see me, preferably in the process of responding to them. I do not see myself accurately in a mirror, but only as mirrored in the pupils of your eyes. Or, as Bakhtin graphically puts the matter in a fragment from the mid-1940s: ‘it is not me who looks out on the world with my own eyes … out of my eyes, someone else's eyes gaze forth’.25

Having confirmed this dichotomy of I-for-myself and I-for-the-other, Bakhtin then walks us through Tolstoy's major works, from Childhood to ‘Notes of a Madman’. He demonstrates how all those themes that cause Tolstoy the most anguish involve a balancing act between these two types of ‘I’—a contest that Tolstoy, stubbornly and with astonishing consistency, manipulates over and over again into a dead end. The excruciating moments that we associate intuitively with Tolstoy—social awkwardness and embarrassment, sexuality to the exclusion of other types of male-female bonding, ‘dying well’ which in fact means ‘dying alone’ and neglecting the help offered by others: all these famous Tolstoyan scenes, Bakhtin intimates, are the result of a narcissistic inflation of the I-for-myself.26 Bakhtin's charge is an interesting one, of course, because by itself it is not so very unusual or bad. Most Romantic literature took for granted the selfishness and inflation of the hero's self-consciousness, and many of those heroes eventually find virtue—in shared love, in renewed social commitment. But crucially for their renewal, these heroes need others. They need to be needed. (Consider Raskolnikov, in the work of Russia's greatest ‘Romantic Realist’ Dostoevsky: even this isolated anarchist is, at the end of the novel, brought around to dependence on a singular love.) But Bakhtin's point seems to be that Tolstoy's swollen ‘I’ refuses on principle to credit the self that others see, need, reach out for, with any legitimacy at all. What is more: Tolstoy sees the I-for-the-other as a fallen, depraved state precisely because it is sensitized to needs and pressures from others. Ideally, one's ‘I’ should not respond to and incorporate these outside pressures, but strive to outgrow them. ‘Throughout the rest of his creative work’, we read in Mirkina's notes, ‘Tolstoy will distribute the world between these two categories; “I-for-others” will become all of society, while “I-for-myself” will be isolated and alone’ (p. 239).

In the early to mid-1920s, then, Bakhtin—who still considered himself a full-time philosopher moonlighting as a literary critic—was rather indifferent to Tolstoy's style of verbal discourse. Although the sin of monolithic monologism might be hovering in the air, the Word and its manifold orientations have not yet become the singular benchmark for measuring one's progress toward humility or human freedom. But in his brief survey of Tolstoy's literary corpus, Bakhtin already senses that the balance between self and other in the mature Tolstoyan hero spells trouble. What matters to Tolstoy is exclusively how the self acts vis-à-vis its own sense of what is right—not vis-à-vis what some outside Other might think is right, or necessary, or important, or lovingly expected. Which is to say: the response of the Other is the other's problem, not a problem for me. This picture of the world was contrary to Bakhtin's understanding of life's ethical task. Increasingly for Bakhtin, a willed step (postupok) and the other's response to that step are taken to constitute a single indivisible unit. This conviction comes to dominate Bakhtin's ‘centrifugal’ worldview, in which the greatest challenge faced by the self is to remember, minute by minute, that it is not the permanent centre of anything, that it is transitory, peripheral, and must be constantly supplemented by other unexpected perspectives.

For this reason, the relative emphases that Tolstoy places on I-for-myself versus I-for-the-other could only suggest to Bakhtin a terrible and skewed set of options. Either I turn outward, which means corruption; or I cast off my need for other people (and their need for me), which becomes virtue. From here it is a small step to equating spiritual growth with indifference to community, and love with riddance. And this, Bakhtin's lectures suggest, is the route taken by the mature Tolstoy. His most courageous literary heroes demonstrate their humanness by outgrowing others and by suffering (especially by dying) alone. To be ‘for the other’—even as a local expedience, out of kindness for the other's pain or loss—is to be cowardly and thus untrue to oneself.

What look like exceptions to this law are just optical illusions. Take, for example, Platon Karataev in War and Peace. He can embrace everyone and everything equally—but only because, Bakhtin insists, he is completely fatalistic, indifferent to good and evil, ‘without personal views or personal will’ (p. 244). Or take the patriarchal marriage, of which Tolstoy deeply approved and which Bakhtin sees as an utter triumph of the I-for-myself: the wife in such a marriage is not an Other but simply a part of the self, a limb growing out of the husband's trunk. (Soon after his own marriage, Tolstoy referred to his deliriously happy relations with his wife Sofia Andreevna in exactly those terms.) If, however, a wife's potential for genuine otherness is activated in a marriage, then ‘Family Happiness’ ends up as ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (p. 258). The key everywhere is to trust only the prompting of the isolated self and to distrust, or disregard, input from the outside.

Mirkina's notes reveal Bakhtin to be a better than average, and at times quite shrewd, reader of Tolstoy's most famous characters. Selfish, successful, happy characters like Stiva Oblonsky, Anna Karenina's brother, are given their due—although Oblonsky's view on life is ‘terrifyingly lightened’, as it knows ‘neither guilt nor retribution’ (p. 253). The glossy Count Vronsky begins trivially, caring only for the distractions of society, but then changes and deepens as a tension develops between his passion for Anna and his vanity, which he does not command the resources to transcend (pp. 252-3). Socially awkward, bumbling heroes like Pierre Bezukhov or Konstantin Levin, plain speakers cast in the role of society's fools, are of course saved; while complex, ambitious, disciplined and gracefully integrated heroes like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky are brought low, because—as Mirkina records in her notes—‘Tolstoy understood simplicity not as wholeness, but as an exposé of unnecessary complexity’ (p. 244).

It is important to note how far Bakhtin has gotten without once having raised the vexed, inflammatory issue of Tolstoy's ‘authoritative word’. Important for him at this stage is not single-voiced versus double-voiced, not monologue versus dialogue, but self versus other and simplicity versus complexity. Bakhtin saw clearly that Tolstoy was one of the world's great simplifiers. And he did not, at least in these notes, think very highly of Tolstoy's religious strivings, which, he said, merely repeated eighteenth-century deism and ‘Protestantism in a naïve form’ (p. 255). In Bakhtin's view (one shared by many thinker-philosophers of his generation, including Nicolas Berdyaev27), a strong, resourceful, confident self, whatever its religious confession, could never be achieved through Tolstoy's renunciatory strategy, which was hostile to grace and went against the grain of the multiplicity natural to the world. This did not mean, of course, that one was obliged to endorse the complexity of modern technology or the mindless proliferation of wants that fuels a bourgeois consumer economy. In that regard, both Tolstoy and Bakhtin were modest men, with marked archaic tastes. But it was imperative, Bakhtin felt, to endorse the complexity and multiplicity of personality. In the years to come, this multiplicity will be called polyphony in Dostoevsky, and carnival plenitude in Rabelais. Tolstoy would have access to neither—because of his insatiable confidence in the I-for-myself, a self that took pleasure in simplifying others out of it.

Are these early, ‘pre-dialogic’ readings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky preferable to what came later, judged strictly as literary analysis? In the case of Tolstoy, the answer is clearly yes. In the case of Dostoevsky, although much in the 1925 Leningrad lectures is routine, it is pleasurable to see Bakhtin considering all aspects of Dostoevsky's art, ethics and plot as well as the role of the word. For a significant backlash has developed in the past several years against the idea of polyphony as the sole formal strength of Dostoevsky's art. (Such may be the fate of all great critical insights that succeed too well.) Suspicions that began with the book on Rabelais have now migrated to the domain of a novelist closer to home: the charge that Bakhtin had mined Dostoevsky to illustrate his dialogic philosophy and then—due to the brilliance and power of that philosophical idea—everything in Dostoevsky's literary world that did not support that idea was flattened out.

For a taste of this ‘contra-Bakhtin’ intonation we might consider an essay that appeared in the spring 2001 issue of the journal Voprosy literatury (‘Questions of Literature’), entitled ‘Perechityvaia Dostoevskogo i Bakhtina’ (‘Rereading Dostoevsky and Bakhtin)’.28 The Western academy has long practised the genre of ‘Rereading’ or ‘Rethinking’ this and that, which usually means passing a set of conventional wisdoms through a newly fashionable theoretical lens. But, until recently, this critical habit was encountered far less often in the sober Russian literary establishment, where more common for a scholarly article was the formulaic title ‘K …’, ‘towards’ the clarification of a topic or problem, a self-effacing phrase that promised not to reconceptualize a whole field but merely to make a limited contribution to it. Now impatient Western criticism is leaving its mark. As quickly became clear in this instance, ‘rereading’ Bakhtin meant a de-reading, a reclamation and return to square one.

Its author, the critic S. Lominadze, challenges the presumption of polyphony and dialogism in The Brothers Karamazov. He insists that Dostoevsky avoids dialogue every bit as forcefully as he engages in it. On crucial matters, Lominadze argues, the novelist stresses not the interaction of worlds but on the contrary, their non-commensurability. What is more, Dostoevsky hands over nothing of substance to his heroes wholesale; he always retains for himself the last word, because created characters are objects; they cannot be full subjects. Dostoevsky's heroes are not pure voice. For one thing, many of the most admirable heroes are significantly silent (consider Sonya in Crime and Punishment, or Christ before the Grand Inquisitor); for another, a ‘voice’ does not kill an old lady with an axe. In fact, Lominadze would have us believe, this whole frenzy over ‘dialogue’—and even more so ‘unfinalized dialogue’—is misdirected and self-contradictory. A completely unfinalized dialogue is not a dialogue at all, but simply a vicious circle. Dostoevsky had no interest in that mode of being and worked hard to bring us out of it. If The Brothers Karamazov is a great book, it is not for its dialogues but for its incomparably great monologues, uttered by more or less static, non-developmental heroes. These stretches of monologic text are given almost no attention by Bakhtin. The Elder Zosima, a human image much beloved by Dostoevsky, is utterly monologic. And although there doubtless is a hierarchy of monologues in this novel (some voices are wiser than others), not much actual listening to one another takes place in its pages. The only place a ‘great polyphonic dialogue’ happens is in the reader's head—and that is hardly new. The most conventional novel is set up to accomplish that. Lominadze concludes that there is no such thing as a polyphonic novel.

What can we learn from irritable, anti-cult, post-boom articles like this? Here I would like to hazard a comparison between Russian and non-Russian debunkings (or de-mythologizations) of Bakhtin. The Russians, for all their political constraints, aired their intellectual suspicions earlier. Back in the mid-1940s, during Bakhtin's dissertation defence in Moscow, Russian specialists on the Renaissance were questioning Bakhtin's radical thesis about Rabelais while we, bedazzled, seemed to swallow it whole (and apply it instantly) when it hit our shores in the 1970s. Both editions of the Dostoevsky book, 1929 and 1963, received sceptical, probing criticism on native soil.29 But Russian Bakhtinians have tended to be protective of the person himself, handling with great tact the direct plagiarisms and unacknowledged borrowings, passing lightly over the doctored c.v., tending to blame aberrations on historical pressure while ascribing the virtues to a-historical genius. This too has been in the tradition of custodial reverence familiar from threatened Stalinist times, in which academics function as the servitors (not as the deconstructors) of art. Since the demise of Soviet communism, however, and the Press Decree of 1990 ending state-sponsored censorship, Russian publishing has experimented with a full spectrum of ways to relate a national cult figure to its nation's literature, philosophy, history and to the very tradition of aesthetic criticism. Nevertheless, the major energies of Russian Bakhtin scholars went into archival research and textual annotation. And this vigorous native industry (as Ken Hirschkop recently reported) ‘has wasted no time in declaring the distinctiveness of its products, occasionally resorting to intellectual protectionism on the part of its native son’.30 Indeed, in today's frayed post-communist climate, Bakhtin's image can become spookily charged. It is often tied in to re-assertions of Russian nationalism, and thus burdened with the ambivalent, love-hate judgements that professional Russian humanists so often bring to the newly available smorgasbord of Western literary methodologies.

An essay reflecting this tension between our two critical traditions appeared in the January 2000 issue of Voprosy filosofii (‘Questions of Philosophy’) with the ambitious title: ‘Bakhtin: the Dialectic of Dialogue versus the Metaphysics of Postmodernism’.31 Its authors, manifestly nostalgic for more ordered times, argue that Bakhtin was a quintessentially Russian thinker because he alone was able to effect a synthesis between dialectics and dialogue. Unlike contemporary Western culture, stuffed with alienated goods, alienated words and random violence, Russian-style dialogue grows out of dialectics and is disciplined by it. Bakhtinian carnival is not some anarchic free-for-all, as Western radicals would have it, but a cleansing of all alienated form in order that the essence underlying this form can be revealed. Bakhtin is not postmodern. Postmodernism celebrates dehumanization and trivialization, whereas Bakhtin hears humanness in everything; he is a window out of alienation into a new world. Postmodernism is no more than a dead-end of the old world, a world of ‘global corporate capital’, in which Dostoevsky and Madonna are held to be of equal worth (p. 131).

Such crude anti-Western diatribes, juxtaposing the salvational qualities of Russian icon space (purified form, window on to a truer world) to the corrupt blandishments of market capitalism, are not without their grain of truth. But one does sense that the focus is no longer on Bakhtin the thinker but on Bakhtin as battering ram for the larger destinies of critical theory, or even of Russia's place in world culture. In this battle, some scholars rescue Dostoevsky from Bakhtin; others rescue Bakhtin from postmodernism. What is at stake in all such operations affecting our subject's posthumous life was well articulated by Ken Hirschkop: ‘No one doubts that Bakhtin's work was warped and garbled by Stalinism … Even a tragic history, however, cannot be cleanly separated from those who did their best to resist it.’32 When votaries attempt to cleanse the kernel of Bakhtin's teaching, purportedly free and eternal, from the shell, which consists of all those contradictory masks donned (it is assumed) by necessity, what results might well be simply another mask.

Let me now proceed to the final section of this post-boom update, where my comments will be organized in a self-serving, although not especially self-congratulatory, way. At the end of my 1997 book on Bakhtin's reception in Russia, The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, I was bold enough to speculate on three areas where Bakhtin studies (primarily in Russia) seemed to be headed in the twenty-first century. One was ‘pedagogical’, linked with the revival of interest in the developmental psychology of Lev Vygotsky, and foresaw ever more open classrooms, dialogism in the schools, multiple perspectives in the syllabus. The second prediction was that there would be a return to ‘Bakhtin and Literature’, after the philosophical bases of his thought had been filled in. And, lastly, I predicted a renewed search for dialogism, and maybe even for carnival, in areas where Bakhtin himself had excluded it: in poetry, epic, drama, even the exact sciences. By 2002, how accurate have these predictions turned out to be?

As far as I can ascertain, on Russian soil those predictions have proved very inaccurate. After a few rhetorical flourishes in isolated sites, the secondary-school classroom as a ‘dialogue of cultures’ flopped utterly. For too long the Russian educational system had been run on the continental model, where a certain formality and professors' rights are taken for granted, to embrace overnight a radical softening of boundaries. (As we saw, Bakhtin himself was a classic exemplar of that distanced, monologically thrilling teaching style.) It has proved quite possible in post-communist Russia to humanize and de-Sovietize the curriculum without questioning basic hierarchies. But, not surprisingly, the pedagogical Bakhtin has taken off tremendously in the USA. There, advocates of John Dewey and of progressive ‘teacher's education’ (with its horizontal, democratizing impulses) have responded hungrily to Bakhtin's de-centralizing ideas. In April 2000 I was invited to address the Bakhtin-Vygotsky Study Group of the CCCC, the ‘Conference on College Composition and Communication’, one of the huge subsidiaries of the huge English-teaching industry. For a Slavist whose profession has now shrunk to the academic margins, this was a whole other world. I discovered that Bakhtin had long been a classic among professional educators and teachers of rhetoric and composition, at both the college and secondary-school level. Anthologies of ‘landmark essays’ on Bakhtin and the classroom are bestsellers. So immense is the market that books with titles like A Pedagogy of Possibility: Bakhtinian Perspectives on Composition Studies (1999) and Saying and Silence: Listening to Composition with Bakhtin (2001) come out immediately in paperback.33 These books contain some very good philosophical extensions of Bakhtin's more vaguely defined concepts—such as the superaddressee, the ‘Third’ (seen as relevant to composition assignments in the classroom), and the relation between dialogue and rhetoric. But, on balance, Bakhtin seems important to American educators as theoretical validation for ‘what is happening anyway’ in the reformist wing of the teaching profession. As an English teacher-Bakhtinian put it in 1994: ‘this move to embrace the dialogic is not surprising’ given ‘the increasing acceptance of student-centered pedagogies, growing emphasis on multicultural education for an increasingly diverse student population, and poststructuralist understanding of language’.34 Arguably, the aristocratic and highly formal Bakhtin would have sympathized with none of these practices. But that should not constrain his usefulness to other disciplines and peoples at other times—and especially to the Americans, who, a hundred and fifty years ago, were so acutely defined by Alexis de Tocqueville as the nation that needs philosophy (and aristocratic hierarchy) less than any people on earth.

What of my second prediction, a return to questions of ‘Bakhtin and literature’? This too has not fared very well, and what return there is has been more in the spirit of a critique or an irritable reclamation, not an enrichment. At fault here, clearly, is the fact that Bakhtin's literary readings have triumphed altogether too well. To get out of them, as we saw with Lominadze and The Brothers Karamazov, the revisionist critic has to bluster and batter, usually coarsening Bakhtin's arguments and thus doing a disservice to the history of ideas. (Here the Bakhtin industry might learn from the industry around Sigmund Freud—another astonishingly original, articulate, provocative thinker who was crudely simplified in the process of ‘catching on’, and then forced to answer for all sorts of moronic simplifications, when the best thing for all of us would have been to go back and reread Freud himself. This simpler and less metaphorical sense of the critical catchword ‘Rereading x or y’ deserves to be rehabilitated.)

What of the third area: finding dialogism where Bakhtin excluded it? Again, in Russia this task seems not to be a high priority—in part because, within the Russian research community, Bakhtin's deep love of poetry has never been questioned, his many years of diligent activity as a drama critic are acknowledged, and his reverence toward Homer and other masterworks of antiquity is well known. But the Anglophone world has engaged the issue enthusiastically. Full-length studies are forthcoming on Bakhtin and the classics (restoring dialogic potential to the ancient lyric and the epic) and on Bakhtin and poetry, focusing on the important, and under-studied, early Bakhtinian concepts of intonation and rhythm.35 In the process of such ‘restorations’ and extensions, the question arises: how pervasive is the dialogic principle? Clearly, everything that communicates emerges from some sort of dialogue, and has the potential for a dialogic reception. But equally clear is that dialogue is not always the most desirable on-the-spot relation. It can be inefficient, and is exasperatingly open to interruption. The other party might not deserve it. And we should have the right to suspend it when we feel the desire to rest for a while in aesthetic form, or to experience a moment of the Sublime. Such parameters are negotiable, as is the case with every utterance.

What is not negotiable for Bakhtin, it appears, is the responsibility to obligate yourself (in his early period, Bakhtin openly said ‘sacrifice yourself’) in some way toward a concrete other person—and, optimally, a person who does not share too centrally what you happen to hold sacred. Another responsibility follows: to resist ‘theorizing’ the deeds that arise out of this obligation: thus Bakhtin's impatience with Tolstoy and Tolstoy's ubiquitous I-for-myself, projecting its needs and rules upon all humanity; thus his tendency to turn away from the single-voiced genres that narrate either from on high or from an unreliable, slippery inside. And thus his fascination (as Nikiforov argues so persuasively) with postupok, the ‘responsible step taken’, which permits of no alibi, no matter how compelling the circumstances or how beguiling the theoretical loopholes.36

Finally. Bakhtin is now a classic. Thus it is probably not too early to speculate on where he belongs in the ‘Russian Idea’. Today, the question of Bakhtin's Russianness is highly contested, and in closing I will touch only on two areas where I think he partakes of a recognizably mainstream Russian tradition.

First, there is much in Bakhtin's thought that is anarchist. By which I mean: if Bakhtin can dispense with an institution, an impersonal norm, a mechanical causality, he will do so. For all his formal style as a professor and for all the reverence with which he approached the culture of the past, he had a powerful animosity against ‘official life’, ‘officialese’, lobbying for hierarchical recognition, all of which he perceived as cowardly alienation and irresponsibility. This animus fed both his fondness for carnival and sustained him during his long years of not being read and not being heard. But Bakhtin's anarchism is, of course, of the warmly organic and loving sort. It partakes not of Bakunin's bomb-throwing but rather of Kropotkin's mutual-aid society, with its uncompromising individuality and its repudiation of Social Darwinism. Cooperation and an open curiosity, Bakhtin felt, were just as natural to the human organism as struggle—although he was unsentimental about these processes, did not minimize the work involved, and had an extremely high threshold for acceptable human behaviours. For all his militarized rhetoric and his own life-long experience of excruciating pain in his own body, the struggles Bakhtin portrays tend to be carnivalized ones, cheerfully anaesthetized. He found real hostility theoretically uninteresting. By and large he was phlegmatic toward those who attacked him personally; and as regards his own person, he was uninsultable.

The first half of Bakhtin's idea, then, is anarchist; the second half, I suggest, is idealist. This does not mean utopian: by temperament, Bakhtin was far too patient, too much of a Stoic, and far too sly to qualify as a utopian thinker. He was also too committed to the Other to associate himself with any idealism limited to ‘the phenomenology of self-experiencing’.37 Bakhtin's idealism was of a special sort, just like his anarchism. It had learned much from the nascent science of sociology, and was turned outward into the world. It shares a great deal with that brand of Russian neo-idealism practised before the First World War, which included among its advocates such eminent philosophers as Peter Struve, Semyon Frank, Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdyaev38 (the last three became distinguished religious thinkers in the emigration). These thinkers were united in their belief that idealism—that is, ‘living by ideals’ rather than by materialist or deterministic doctrines—was the best guarantee of individual responsibility and civil liberty in Russian, or perhaps in any, society. How should we look on ideals, if we wish them to deliver our life into freedom?

First, an ideal—just because it is spatially or temporally distant—is not for that reason abstracting, homogenizing or depersonalizing. Philosophers of this Russian school, like Bakhtin one generation later, were committed personalists who regarded the individual self (in Russian, lichnost', ‘personhood’) as the central value of philosophy, its most precious capital. They took their inspiration from Kant's ‘subjective idealism’, with its insistence on the human being as an end in itself and not a means, rather than from those more monistic, objective idealisms—such as Hegel's—which aimed to restore lost unity in a future Absolute. But they were devoted to making Kantian categories more concrete. Thus did Bakhtin pursue with such interest Weber, Scheler, Rickert, Simmel. In this variant of sociologically informed philosophical pluralism, there are potentially as many ideals as persons.

Second. An ideal need not be a fixed or permanent value. The content of an ideal can change. All that is fixed is the status of the ideal within a given person's purview. And thus, third: living by ideals is not, in the denigrating sense of the word, ‘idealistic’. Quite the contrary. Absolute ideals—unlike the worldly utopia of the positivists—are not posited because we expect to arrive at them and live serenely inside of them. I posit an ideal because I want to orient toward it, in a world that otherwise offers me little by way of security, reasonableness or reward. Thus living by ideals is supremely realistic. Coherence or justice is at no point expected from the outside world, nor is it imposed upon that world. If early twentieth-century history taught these Russian thinkers anything at all, it was that external events could never be counted on to cohere for their individual benefit; their feet were planted securely on concrete, ruined ground. But if events could not be presumed beneficent, then at any moment each individual could always choose to answer for a coherent response to an event. It is this individual freedom over the response that the ideal facilitates. In a word, positing ideals makes wholeness possible in my life.

Radically personalist, responsive, anarchist, idealist: Bakhtin's vision of the world demanded very little of the world, and yet aimed to make every person feel less helpless within it. There are not many provisions in Bakhtin's writings for changing that world objectively. His primary tools are particularity, humility and trust. What that is called as a philosophy I am not sure. But now that the front of the boom has passed and we feel comfortable with dialogue, chronotope, carnival time-and-space, we might try to take that problem on.


  1. For an eloquent discussion of the second half of the twentieth century as an ‘age of suspicion’ for literary scholars, critics and primary creators, see Gabriel Josipovici, On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), esp. ch. 1.

  2. See Charles Lock, ‘Double Voicing, Sharing Words: Bakhtin's Dialogism and the History of the Theory of Free Indirect Discourse’, in Jorgen Bruhn and Jan Lundquist (eds), The Novelness of Bakhtin: Perspectives and Possibilities (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001), pp. 71-87. Specific page references to quotes provided in text.

  3. See Ken Hirschkop, Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy, ch. 3, ‘Bakhtin Myths and Bakhtin History’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 111.

  4. According to the memoir literature, Bakhtin made comments in this openminded spirit throughout his life. In English, see Sergei Bocharov, ‘Conversations with Bakhtin’, PMLA 109, no. 5 (October 1994), pp. 1009-24, an abridged translation of his ‘Ob odnom razgovore i vokrug ego’ (‘About and around one conversation’), in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2 (1993), pp. 70-89. When Bocharov asked Bakhtin if he had ever been ‘fascinated with Marxism’, Bakhtin answered: ‘No, never. I took an interest in it, as in much else—Freudianism, even spiritualism. But I was never a Marxist to any degree whatsoever’ (p. 1016).

  5. Vladimir Nikiforov (Liverpool, UK), ‘First Philosophy as Philosophy of Individual Postupok’, Symposion, 4-6 (1999-2001), pp. 61-105, esp. 6, ‘Postupok as Production: The Marxian Context’ (pp. 83-6). Nikiforov argues that Georg Simmel, Max Scheler and other German theorists trying to learn some lesson from the awful First World War were on balance more pessimistic than Bakhtin. They blamed the rift between producer and product (and the overall collapse of humanistic thought into nihilism) on immanent mechanisms of Culture, unaddressable by individuals, whereas Bakhtin, as early as his first tiny six-paragraph publication (‘Art and Responsibility’, 1919) insists on our freedom of choice. When we theorize the split, Bakhtin remarks, we evade responsibility for it (p. 81).

  6. Sergei Zemlianoi, ‘Chto takoe ezotericheskii marksizm?’ Review of Mikhail Bakhtin: Tetralogiia, compiled with commentary by I. V. Peshkov et al., in Knizhnoe obozrenie (28 January 1999), p. 3.

  7. Most recently, see Galin Tihanov, The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of their Time (Oxford University Press, 2000), ch. 9, ‘Hegel and Rabelais’. Among Hegelian topics currently attracting attention in Bakhtin studies is a consideration of different types of dialectic: if Hegel focused on a dialectic of constraint, where freedom at any given point was ‘insight into necessity’, then Bakhtin, in the spirit of his Marburg School mentor Matvei Kagan, was more interested in the dialectic of spontaneity (an example of which would be the aha! experience following bewilderment and separating knowledge from non-knowledge). Both types of dialectic are arguably quite distinct from what Bakhtin later called ‘dialogue’.

  8. See Brian Poole, ‘Bakhtin and Cassirer: The Philosophical Origins of Bakhtin's Carnival Messianism’, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 97, 3/4 (Summer/Fall 1998), pp. 537-78. This essay is part of Poole's comprehensive study-in-progress of Bakhtin's intellectual sources and debts.

  9. Bruhn and Lundquist, ‘Introduction’ to The Novelness of Bakhtin, p. 20.

  10. See Bocharov, ‘Conversations with Bakhtin’, p. 1020, and also Sergei Bocharov, ‘Sobytie bytiia: O Mikhaile Mikhailoviche Bakhtine’, Novyi mir, 11 (1995), pp. 211-21, esp. 219.

  11. See the first interview in Besedy V. D. Duvakina s M. M. Bakhtinym (Moscow: Progress, 1996), pp. 41-2.

  12. The ‘parasitical’ remark was possibly made in jest (but not entirely); see the memoir essay of G. B. Ponomareva, ‘Vyskazannoe I nevyskazannoe …’, Dialog. Karnaval. Khronotop, 3 (1995), p. 66.

  13. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 56; for Dostoevsky's supposed ‘plotlessness’, pp. 276-7.

  14. See M. M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), pp. 25-50.

  15. See M. M. Bakhtin, ‘The Art of the World and the Culture of Folk Humor (Rabelais and Gogol)’ (first published in Russian 1972), in Henryk Baran (ed.), Semiotics and Structuralism: Readings from the Soviet Union (White Plains NY: IASP, 1976), pp. 284-96.

  16. See ‘Discourse in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 344: ‘images of official authoritative truth, images of virtue (of any sort: monastic, spiritual, bureaucratic, moral, etc.) have never been successful in the novel. It suffices to mention the hopeless attempts of Gogol and Dostoevsky in this regard. For this reason the authoritative text always remains, in the novel, a dead quotation, something that falls out of the artistic context (for example, the evangelical texts in Tolstoy at the end of Resurrection).’

  17. Against the monologism of War and Peace (and in general against Bakhtin's view of Tolstoy), see Andrew Wachtel, An Obsession with History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), ch. 5 and David Sloane, ‘Rehabilitating Bakhtin's Tolstoy: The Politics of the Utterance’, Tolstoy Studies Journal (2001). The earliest to protest Bakhtin's excision of the authoritative word in Brothers Karamazov was Nina Perlina, Varieties of Poetic Utterance (Lantham, MA and London: University Press of America, 1985); Yuri Mann and other Gogol experts routinely lament the over-emphasis on the carnival connection in their author; and Galin Tihanov devotes a chapter in The Master and the Slave to Bakhtin's utopian reading of Goethe (ch. 8).

  18. Nikiforov, ‘First Philosophy as Philosophy of Individual Postupok’, p. 75. In Nikiforov's view, Bakhtin's thought was shaped by Simmel's writings on the crisis of culture through objectification and by Rickert's ruminations on Handlung (the act as human behaviour and product), but Bakhtin pushed the idea more radically in the direction of concreteness, wholeness and structuredness (Kant's architectonics, but without Kant's abstraction).

  19. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 276. (The claim is made in this bold form only in the 1929 version of the book, and is included as an Appendix to the translation of the 1963 second edition.)

  20. Bocharov, ‘Conversations with Bakhtin’, pp. 1020-1.

  21. See the Commentary to the Mirkina notes, ‘Zapisi domashnego kursa lektsii po russkoi literature (1922-27 gg.; Vitebsk-Leningrad)’, in Sergei Bocharov, general editor, M. M. Bakhtin: Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 2 (Moscow: Russkie slovari, 2000), pp. 560-73, esp. 565.

  22. See Bocharov, ‘Conversations with Bakhtin’, p. 1011.

  23. R. M. Mirkina, ‘Bakhtin, kak ya ego znala’, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2 (1993), pp. 66-7. Bocharov solicited this brief memoir from Mirkina when she was already advanced in years, and he corroborates Mirkina's impression of Bakhtin as a highly formal lecturer, ‘a born orator with an expressive, beautiful timbre’, a ‘brilliant improvisator’. The tapes made by Viktor Duvakin of Bakhtin's resonant voice at age seventy-three, reciting poetry in three languages, indicate that this oratorial gift never abandoned him.

  24. See, for example, ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’, Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. by Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 37-8.

  25. ‘Chelovek u zerkala’ (‘The person at the mirror’), in M. M. Bakhtin: Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 5 (Moscow: Russkie slovari, 1996), p. 71.

  26. Such a view of Tolstoy was not, of course, uncommon in the 1920s and 1930s, in Russia and abroad. See, for example, D. S. Mirsky, ‘Some Remarks on Tolstoy’ (1929), reprinted in G. S. Smith (ed.), D. S. Mirsky: Uncollected Writings on Russian Literature (Berkeley Slavic Specialities, 1989), pp. 303-11. Mirsky considers Tolstoy's Narcissus complex to be his most un-Russian trait.

  27. See, for example, the enraged judgement passed on Tolstoy's asceticism, nihilism and maximalist individualism by Nikolai Berdyaev, in his essay ‘Dukhi russkoi revoliutsii’ (‘Spirits of the Russian Revolution’), in Iz glubiny: Sbornik statei o russkoi revoliutsii (1918) (repr. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Moskovskogo universiteta, 1990), pp. 55-89, esp. 78-85.

  28. S. Lominadze, ‘Perechityvaia Dostoevskogo i Bakhtina’, Voprosy literatury (March-April 2001), pp. 39-58.

  29. I discuss the often hostile, and at times ominous, Russian reception of these two seminal studies by Bakhtin in my The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), chs. 2, 3 and 4.

  30. For a thoughtful discussion, see Ken Hirschkop, ‘Bakhtin in the Sober Light of Day (An Introduction to the Second Edition)’, in Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (eds), Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 1-25, esp. 7.

  31. L. A. Bulavka and A. V. Buzgalin, ‘Bakhtin: Dialektika dialoga versus metafizika postmodernizma’, Voprosy filosofii, 1 (2000), pp. 119-31.

  32. Hirschkop, ‘Bakhtin in the Sober Light of Day’, p. 10.

  33. See Frank Farmer (ed.), Landmark Essays on Bakhtin, Rhetoric, and Writing (Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press, 1998); Kay Halasek, A Pedagogy of Possibility: Bakhtinian Perspectives on Composition Studies (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999) and Frank Farmer, Saying and Silence: Listening to Composition with Bakhtin (Logan UT: Utah State University Press, 2001).

  34. Irene Ward, Literacy, Ideology, and Dialogue: Towards a Dialogic Pedagogy, cited in Halasek, A Pedagogy of Possibility, p. 3.

  35. See R. Bracht Branham, ed., Bakhtin and the Classics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), and Donald Wesling, Toward a Bakhtinian Poetics (under consideration by Bucknell University Press, 2001).

  36. See Nikiforov, ‘First Philosophy’, pp. 69 ff. According to this reconstruction, during and after the war years Bakhtin was deeply involved in the debates over personhood in the German academy (defined as ‘a harmonious microcosm formed by Bildung’). But Bakhtin added two new foci to the debate: first, he aimed to replace the elitist implications of ‘person’—which the worldwide catastrophe had made anachronistic and communist doctrine had made unpopular—with the more accessible, democratic concept of postupok, defined by Nikiforov as a ‘structured fragment of life in its wholeness and concreteness’. And, second, Bakhtin did not ascribe, as did Georg Simmel, to some inevitable tragedy of culture brought about by an alienation of the creator from the created product. ‘Bakhtin is not fatalistic’ (p. 81); human experience does not have to split down the middle between culture and life; we are responsible for choosing to do so, and to blame is the temptation of a theorized life.

  37. See Nikiforov, ‘First Philosophy’, p. 87, on the interaction of idealism and materialism in Bakhtin's thought and his reservations about both.

  38. An English-language edition of the signature collection of essays by this group, Problemy Idealizma (‘Problems of Idealism’) (1902), translated, edited and annotated by Randall A. Poole, is forthcoming from Yale University Press, 2002. My brief preface to this edition has supplied some of the concluding thoughts of the present essay.

Michael Holquist (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Holquist, Michael. “Why Is God's Name a Pun?: Bakhtin's Theory of the Novel in the Light of Theophilology.” In The Novelness of Bakhtin: Perspectives and Possibilities, edited by Jørgen Bruhn and Jan Lundquist, pp. 53-69. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Holquist explores the relationship between the sacred and the profane in Bakhtin's theory of the novel.]

“The life which that has no knowledge of the air it breathes is a naive life.”

M. M. Bakhtin

For all his opposition to monologue and the autarchic word, Bakhtin himself was not above making categorical statements from time to time. This apodictic tendency—what might be called Bakhtin's Sherlock Holmes tone of voice—is most pronounced in those writings of his that deal with the novel. We are told that a correct understanding of Rabelais “requires an essential reconstruction of our entire artistic and ideological perception.”1 In “Epic and Novel” we read, “The utter inadequacy of literary theory is exposed when it is forced to deal with the novel.”2 Dostoevsky's significance extends we are told “far beyond the limits of the novel alone.”3

Bakhtin is moved to write in an otherwise uncharacteristically authoritarian tone when treating the novel because he must do everything he can to separate himself from the work that had previously been done on individual novelists and on the genre of the novel itself. He is particularly exercised about generic questions having to do with the novel because of his conviction that other critics have failed utterly to perceive the necessity of analysis at this level: “They do not see beneath the superficial hustle and bustle of literary process the major and crucial fates of literature and language, whose great heroes turn out to be first and foremost genres, and whose ‘trends’ and ‘schools’ are but second or third-rank protagonists.”4 Genre, of course, is a term usually reserved for poetics, that is for normative descriptions of what a particular form should be. The question must arise then, as to how so militantly anti-systemic a thinker and so notoriously hybrid a kind of text as the novel can possibly find illumination within the restrictive confines of genre. The obvious answer to such a question is that Bakhtin treats the category of genre itself novelistically: the novel is less a particular text type (although it is that, too) than it is an experimental space for testing dialogic limits, it is ‘novelness’, understood in terms made most unambiguous in the passages on heteroglossia and the novel in “Discourse in the Novel”: “The orientation of the word amid the utterances and languages of others, and all the specific phenomena connected with this orientation, takes on artistic significance in novel style. Diversity of voices and heteroglossia enter the novel and organize themselves within it into a structured artistic system. This constitutes the distinguishing feature of the novel as a genre.”5 Even more monologically, in “From the Prehistory of Novelistic discourse,” he says, “To a greater or lesser extent, every novel is a dialogized system made up of the images of ‘languages’, styles and consciousnesses that are concrete and inseparable from language. Language in the novel not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation.”6 This way of conceiving the novel has in recent years become so widely accepted that the radical nature of its novelty has been eroded, so in this essay I'd like to speculate about certain features of this idiosyncratic theory of the novel in an attempt to recapture some of its strangeness and in the process, perhaps expose some aspects of Bakhtin's life and work that make the novel an ineluctable centerpiece for dialogism.

So a first thesis I'd like to propose here is that one way to perceive the novelty of the definition of the novel we have in Bakhtin is to see that it is for him irreducibly trilogic, a particularly powerful instantiation of dialogue: novelness is the medium in which ‘language not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation.’ It does two things at once, and in order for that duality to be perceived as a simultaneity, it requires a third point of view that can see the sameness of representation in both cases while at the same time seeing the difference between the act of language representing, and language as it is itself the thing represented. The novel, when it is doing what we might call novel-ing, manifests a simultaneity of subject and object. It is the form that more than any other insists on staging in the most paradigmatic terms both the continuity that joins an act (postupok, ‘actual once occurrent being’) and its representation, whether in thought or in a text and the cutoff that at the same time separates subject/object, deed/representation. It is, of course, language, the primordial precondition of dialog, that enables the simultaneity to be enacted, that language which, in the novel, ‘not only represents, but itself serves as the object of representation.’ Novelness is, then, a subject position from which we must always look in both directions.

For this reason, Janus is a figure frequently invoked by Bakhtin and by his interpreters (as Anthony Wall reminds us again in a forthcoming article7 in the special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly devoted to Bakhtin). In Toward a Philosophy of the Act, for instance, we find: “An act of our activity, of our actual experiencing, is like a two-faced Janus. It looks in two opposite directions: it looks at the objective unity of a domain of culture and at the never-repeatable uniqueness of actual lived and experienced life. (…) An act must acquire a single unitary plane to be able to reflect itself in both directions—in its sense or meaning and in its being; it must acquire the unity of two-sided answerability.”8 The novel is thus the genre in which all words are words ‘with a sideways glance’, and in order for the ensuing two-sidedness to be perceived, a third observer is required: in order to see the ‘unity of two-sided answerability’ you must not only look in two directions, but you must do so at once. Thus, it turns out that the two-faced Janus figure is actually a trope not for two vectors of being, but three. Janus, then, is the deity who presides over dialogue for many of the same reasons he is the god of paronomasia, the generic word for word-play, more especially of punning. The significance of this will become clearer if we invoke an example from another philologist-trickster and dreamer of relation: perhaps Borges will help us better understand the complexity of Janus as metaphor for the thirdness of dialogue. At the conclusion (a doubled ending that is the narrative equivalent of a pun) of one of Borges' endlessly suggestive detective stories, “Death and the Compass”, the detective hero has deduced his way to a crumbling mansion where he will meet his death by solving the crime that is his own murder. The mansion's name is Triste le Roi, but hovering about that name is a suggestion of ‘triste le dieu’, where ‘roi’ is the monotheistic king of the universe who is rendered sad by the complete dominion exercised in this tale by quite another god, encountered by the hero in the mansion's garden, where “A two-faced Hermes cast a monstrous shadow.”9 The statue is itself, of course, a pun, bringing together Hermes and Janus into a striking simultaneity: Hermes, the messenger, is indeed a figure who must, if he is to serve his mission of translating between the language of the gods and the language of men, look both ways. As Frank Kermode reminds us, “The god Hermes is the patron of thieves, merchants, and travelers; of heralds and what heralds pronounce, their kerygma. He also has to do with oracles, including a dubious sort known as kledon, which at the moment of its announcement may seem trivial or irrelevant, the secret sense declaring itself only after a long delay, and in circumstances not originally foreseeable. Hermes is cunning, and occasionally violent: a trickster, a robber. So it is not surprising that he is the patron of interpreters.”10 And, as two-faced, he is not to be trusted completely by those in either direction of his double gaze. More important in grasping the utility of a two-headed Hermes as a trope for dialogism is the suggestion that it is precisely through the act of looking in two different directions that messages find their mediated way. For what is hermeneutics if not the construction of relation, which both in English and Russian (otnnosit'/otnoenie; relatus/referre/relation) has hovering about it the promise—but only the promise—of delivery.

I have begun by insisting on the paronomastic character of novelness as Bakhtin understands it in order to stress the central place in it of relation and connectedness. As I have tried to suggest in another context11, this emphasis in dialogism on finding mediation between extremes otherwise thought to be in helpless opposition to each other, is one of the ways in which Bakhtin betrays his enormous debt to Marburg Neo-kantianism, ultimately his enormous debt to Kant himself. It was Kant who in the chapter on schematization in the first Critique bequeathed to Post-Enlightenment thinkers the problem of relation in its most radical form: How can there be any connection at all between anything? (“die möglichkeit einer Verbindung überhaupt”).12 The emphasis in Bakhtin on thirdness and relation marks him among other theorists of the novel as unique but not alone. In fact, he is typical of his generation of European philologists insofar as he is obsessed with schemes of relation. One way to contextualize his theory of the novel, might then well be to put it into the perspective of what, for want of a better term, I shall call theophilology. I invoke this admittedly barbarous locution as an economical means for characterizing the distinguishing characteristic of the remarkable generation of scholars that came to flower between the two world wars. A red thread running through some of the most lasting of their work is the attempt to connect certain traditions associated with religious practice in the past to new exigencies called forth by the black age in which they lived. In one way or another, they all try to rethink what the category of the sacred might mean amidst the ruins of institutionalized religion. If we now look back to the years that bracket those years it is hard not to experience a kind of Kantian disgust in the face of our recent history's stupidity and bloodthirstiness. And yet there is a kind of curious antithesis in all this violence for those who love words: the same period is one of the golden ages of philology. It was during these years that men born around the cusp of the twentieth century, men such as Leo Spitzer, Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, and the Ernst Cassirer of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms came to maturity in Germany, when not only Bakhtin, but Jakobson, Trubeckoj, and Gustav Shpet did the same in Russia, as did Benveniste, Caillois, and Bataille in France. There are many differences between these highly idiosyncratic figures, but a common bond among many of them is the shared experience not only of exile, but of fascination with the complex relation between language and the sacred. This is not the place to dwell on these matters in detail, but before getting back to the relevance of such details for understanding Bakhtin's theory of the novel, let me quickly remind you of some of the more important of these instances only in passing. Jakobson converted to Russian Orthodoxy during his years in Prague, with important consequences for the work he was to do on Russian medieval texts, and of course Trubeckoj's relation to the school of Euroasianists is unthinkable without taking into account the place of Slavia orthodoxa in that movement. In France, as my colleague Denis Hollier has shown in his work on the College de Sociologie, the bond that kept such disparate characters as Bataille, Leiris, and Caillois together during the awful decade of the 1930s was their common effort to rediscover threads back to the sacred in order to re-establish community after the decline of religion. The place of Jewish mysticism in the work of Walter Benjamin is too well known to require comment; Cassirer's work with Aby Warburg in Hamburg is focused on an attempt to make sense out of primitive cultures where religion was still alive, to connect myth with science.

All these figures share the Modernist striving that was summed up in E. M. Forster's plaintive self-directive, ‘Connect, only connect.’ Many of them exiles, citizens of an age of purges, wars, genocide, when some of the darkest and bloodiest crimes are committed in the name of universalizing ideologies such as Nazism or Bolshevism, they tried to make sense of history by rethinking language in one way or another. The particular strand in this development that is of relevance for our discussion today is the one in which Bakhtin is very much part of this pattern; his association with the underground Church in Leningrad during the 1920s was cause for his arrest, and he was buried with rites of an Orthodox monk. References to scripture can be found throughout his work early and late. But it would be missing the point, I think, to make too much of Bakhtin's undoubted connections to a particular religion, as have some of his more ardent students in Russia. In this regard, it is well to remember that Bakhtin, who loved stories, had a particular affection for the tale from the Decameron called “How Ser Ciapelletto Became Saint Ciapelletto.” It recounts how an evil merchant, who throughout his life has lied, cheated, and fornicated, falls ill on a visit to a strange town and recognizes he is about to die. He calls in a holy friar to make his confession. By subtle indirection and masterfully legalistic manipulations of Catholic dogma, the wicked man convinces the priest that his life has been one of unexampled virtue. After the deceiving merchant dies and is buried in hollow ground, the priest tells everyone about his discover of a previously unsuspected holy man. Pilgrimages are made to the tomb of the evil merchant turned saint. Soon miracles begin to occur at the site. There are many ways to interpret this story's significance for Bakhtin, but in light of his generation, I would read it as a parable about the priority of the sacred over its appropriations into particular dogmas.

I tried to suggest earlier that a key to Bakhtin's thinking about the novel was his conviction that novelness is a particularly exemplary form of dialogue, one in which the necessity of looking in two directions was its distinctive feature. The attempt to put the subject/object distinction into suspension in novelness is a strategy for thinking difference that is typical of Bakhtin's generation of philologists insofar as they, too, sought ways to avoid the binarism that dominated earlier concepts of difference. In going back to a level that is deeper than religion, figures such as Benjamin and Bakhtin sought to confront the sacred itself. It will perhaps be helpful here if we specify more precisely what sacred might mean in such a formulation. It is here that the work of Emile Durkheim, the major influence on such French figures as Bataille and Caillois in their association in the College de Sociologie will perhaps give us some direction. Sacred is a useful category for thinking difference, if only because it is more often than not the name that has been given to the most extreme instance of non-identity, the pole of the sacred and the pole of the profane. Mircea Eliade has spoken of the two spheres as “two modes of being in the World … a precipice separates the two modalities of experience, the sacred and the profane.”13 Rudolf Otto has described the sacred as “the completely other.”14 But no one has done more to articulate the complexities of the sacred than Durkheim, who argues that: “All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred.” He elaborates on the impossibility of mixing the two categories: the heterogeneity of the sacred and the profane “is sufficient to characterize this classification of things and to distinguish it from all others, because it is very particular; it is absolute. In all the history of human thought there exists no other example of two categories of things so profoundly differentiated or so radically opposed to one another. The traditional opposition of good and bad is nothing beside this; for the good and the bad are only two opposed species of the same class, namely morals, just as sickness and health are two different aspects of the same order of facts, life, while the sacred and the profane have always and everywhere been conceived by the human mind as two distinct classes as two worlds between which there is nothing in common.”15 Perhaps this way of grasping the sacred will help us better understand the central place that ‘redemption’ holds in Benjamin's philosophy of history, where it is difficult to discriminate between what he calls a ‘historical materialist’ and an Old Testament prophet: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism's bordello.”16 He concludes his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” by reminding us that “the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in rememberance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”17

What Benjamin was arguably doing was seeking to bring into communion sacred and profane time not only in his reflections on history, but in his meditation on the novel (occasioned, I would argue, not by chance) by the Russian writer Leskov. In that great essay, you will remember, storytelling is pitted against the fallen world of the novel: The tale traditionally had “something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers.”18 But the gift that stories bring has been lost in the modern period according to Benjamin: “The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times […] The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual [who] is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others.”19

While Benjamin shares Bakhtin's concern for the fate of the sacred, and relates it to his analysis of narrative forms, he arrives at conclusions almost diametrically opposed to those of Bakhtin, for whom the novel is a sign of progress in human wisdom, rather than decline. This is so, I believe, because unlike Benjamin, Bakhtin is not saddened by the apparent rise of the secular. Behind the decline of institutionalized religion, the work of the sacred goes on: it may assume different masks, but it has not disappeared, which is one of the reasons he could be so amused by the tale of Ser Ciapelletto's deception, which really is only a parable about how mysterious are the ways of the sacred, and how unavailable to the intentions of either rogues such as the evil merchant, or of popes in Rome.

Thus the conventional association of the rise of the novel with the rise of secularism is something that does not long detain Bakhtin, who sees that a secular age merely has different strategies for confronting sacral difference, which as such is always with us. Thus the novel is to be celebrated as a way to look both ways—to see that sacred and profane are necessary to each other, and that the struggle between them simply becomes more complicated in the so-called modern world.

As an example of what I mean, let me go to Bakhtin's analysis of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons in “Discourse in the Novel.” In marking differences between generations, Turgenev uses different pronunciations of the same word “the different ways the word ‘principle’ is pronounced in the novel can serve to mark off different historical and cultural social worlds: the world of noble-landowner culture of the twenties and thirties, raised on French literature but a stranger to the Latin language and to German science, or the world of the raznochinec intelligentsia of the fifties, with the tone of a seminarist or doctor raised on Latin and on German science. […] Such direct, external commentary on the peculiarities of characters' languages is typical for the novel as a genre, but it is not of course through them that the image of a language is created in a novel. Such commentary has already itself been turned into an object: in such situations the author's words have dialogized, double-voiced and double-languaged overtones to them.”20

Now, it is extremely important for the argument I am trying to make that Bakhtin's emphasis on double-languagedness as the primary characteristic of the novel be kept in mind. For in order that this definition work, language must be conceived in a particular way: to be doubled as it is in Bakhtin's definition of the novel, it must have the capacity not to be identical with itself. It must, in other words, be grounded in relation rather than substance.

It is here that it will be useful to remember certain striking parallels between language so conceived and the sacred, which, as posited by Durkheim, at least, is not the name for the presence of a god or a person. It is not the name for any presence at all. Rather, it is characterized by the absence of any positive attribute. It never stands alone, but must always be grasped in its opposition to the profane. It is a pure relationship, not a thing that is nominated by the sacred, for it can be known only by contrast with what it is not. It is understandable not merely as a mysterium tremendum, but as an epistemological limit.

As such, it shares a number of distinctive features with that other, and now more frequently invoked epistemological limit, language. Durkheim had insisted in his 1912 elementary Forms that the relationship between sacred and profane was a difference that is absolute. In lectures Saussure gave at the University of Geneva in the immediately preceding years, he too, had concentrated on absolute difference. In so doing, he was returning to the roots of thinking about language: when ancient Egyptians named Thoth as the god who gave them writing, they were acknowledging a link between language and the sacred. And if we conceive the sacred as a relation rather than an ibis-headed deity, the ink is still valid. For the relation of difference is not only at the heart of the sacred, it is also the engine that makes language work. It is in the similarities and differences between Durkheim the sociologist of religion and Saussure the student of language structure, that ancient beliefs about the sacred origin of words may well find their strongest justification.

We have been arguing that there is an ineluctable affinity between language and the sacred. Both are technologies for treating the master relation of absolute difference. As such, both need to find ways to put objects and concepts that appear to be mutually exclusive of each other somehow into relation with each other: a means must be found to avoid identity (idem, the same) while maintaining a condition of simultaneity (simul, at the same time). Simultaneity, as I have already tried to suggest, is a condition that is most manifest in language in the ability to make puns, often associated with jokes, comedy, and tricksters of various kinds. But puns also play an enormous role in the religious tradition of the West as well: the authority of the Pope in roman Catholicism goes back to a Greek word attributed to Christ in Matthew 16:18: “Thou are Peter (Petrus), and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church.” I should note parenthetically that it will be important for my concluding argument about the relation of literariness and the sacred, that one of the more serious challenges to Papal authority, the exposure of the so-called Donation of Constantine as a fake, was the work of the fifteenth century philologist Lorenzo Valla, who established the basic techniques of textual criticism.

The theological importance of punning is made even clearer in the Old Testament, as in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11: “So the Lord dispersed them from there all over the earth, and they left off building. That is why it is called Babel, because there the Lord made a babble of the language of the whole world and from that place the Lord scattered people over the face of the earth.” The play here is with the word Babel, which for the Babylonians meant ‘Gate of the Gods,’ but which is macaronically punned through the Hebrew verb ‘balal’ meaning ‘to confuse’ or ‘to babble’. From very early on, then, in the Judaeo-christian tradition there is a sensed connection between punning and the sacred that gets inscribed into the very originating myth about language diversity.

An even more defining moment in the conflation of the sacred with paronomasia is present in the book of Exodus, chapter 3, verses 13 and 14: “13. And Moses said unto God, Behold when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say to them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say to them? 14. And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, thus shall thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

In this exchange, note first of all that Moses is here more in a position of in-between-ness than any arrow or tortoise in one of Zeno's paradoxes, caught as he is between the supreme Lord and his unruly subjects, between his own status as a lowly man and the awful majesty of the Lord. All these in-between-nesses are posed in the multiple problems concealed in the ultimate Bakhtinian question, “who is talking?” When Moses speaks to the people, they will ask him the name of the being whose authority he claims. They will, in other words, want to know what to call the sacred: who was talking, or, in even more strictly Bakhtinian terms, whom is Moses ventriloquating—or being ventriloquated by? They will want to know who is talking when Moses is talking, so Moses must find out who is talking in his confrontation with the burning bush.

When God speaks to him out of that bush, he does so at a particular time and in a particular place: he speaks to the individual Moses, and he talks about his plan to take the Israelites not to some abstract land of milk and honey, but to “the place of the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” (III/8) The place from which the voice of I AM speaks is its appropriate site: a lowly bush whose naturalness stands in contrast to the unnatural fire that burns in it without consuming it. The timelessness and the ubiquity presumed by the universal presence of I AM are compromised by his eruption into a particular moment in a particular place.

The very situation of dialogue in which the voice lets itself be heard compromises the claim to absolute identity: why is I AM talking? Why is he doing so to someone who is NOT I AM? Why to someone—else? Some commonality between the prophet and I AM can apparently be presumed because God's omnipresence includes Moses within itself. But to say so is once again to point to and specify the ground of the absolute self in the absolute god, a possibility ingrained in the tradition that derives the divine name, the tetragrammaton Yahweh, from the Hebrew verb to be (hayah). As the editors of the Oxford Study Bible note, “Thus Israel understood the very essence of the deity to be expressed by the divine name.”21

But insofar as God's proper name has another meaning—Yahweh/hayah—it is both a noun and a verb, and has both a figural and a literal aspect: I AM is a figure for the absolute qualities that define the speaker from the burning bush as a God, and I AM, the name of the being who speaks from the burning bush. So if ‘Israel understood the very essence of the deity to be expressed by the divine name,’ we are confronted by a paradox: the very essence of that name that is the very essence of everything, is divided against itself. The very pronouncement that seeks to seal the absolute oneness, the essence, the identity of the monotheistic God contains its own contradiction. Thus conceived, the awful name of God reveals itself as a pun.

The peculiar status of the name for the Hebrew god is yet another indication of the fundamental bond between ideas of the sacred and ideas about language.

Thus the punning aspect of God's name draws attention to the most obvious aspect of the relation between language and the sacred which is the dialectic of presence and absence in each. The tension between the two is obvious in the example of I AM's appearance to Moses in the burning bush. God cannot be seen, but he is present—a literalization of the pun that is his name. The name, the dread tetragrammaton, of Yahweh, is hedged about with prohibitions, and in Kabalah, assigned awful power in itself as a name.

The suppression of God's true name is an aspect of Hebrew iconoclasm, a source of the fury that Moses directs against the golden calf and all other graven images. In the particular instance of God's name, this prohibition is directed against even words that would presume to image God. Such extreme iconoclasm assumes that the presence of a representation can be equated with the presence of what it represents. The problem in this case, as we saw in Moses' question to Yahweh, is how shall a medium be found that can include both God's presence and his necessary absence in any blasphemous mirror of representation? As we saw, one answer is provided by the implicit wordplay in the ancient tradition that saw Yahweh as both a noun and a verb—god's name is not one thing (an identity of sign and referent) but simultaneously two. It is the very awfulness of God that dictates his name should be a pun.

So paronomasia is a serious business, not confined to jokes and puns. Rather, it is a way to conceive the very nature of language itself. But, you will say, what has all this got to do with Bakhtin's theory of the novel? Remember that that theory is always accompanied by a history of one sort or another: in the various writings that directly concerned with the novel as a genre, several different versions of how the modern novel are are given, some of which contradict important features of the other historical accounts Bakhtin devises. But there is one feature that is common to all these histories: each tells the same story of struggle between the two forces Bakhtin sees as basic to the concept of language he uses to underwrite his definition not only of novelness, but of the even more fundamental category of genre (present as well in the work on speech genres). As he says in a deservedly well known passage in “Discourse in the Novel,” “A unitary language is not something that is given [dan], but is in its very essence posited [zadan]—and at every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of heteroglossia. But at the same time it makes its real presence felt as a force for overcoming this heteroglossia, imposing specific limits to it, guaranteeing a certain maximum of mutual understanding and crystalizing into a real, although still relative unity.”22 This tendency to unity can be productive as in the sharedness assumed in everyday conversational language or in the ‘correct language’ presumed by most normative literary canons. But it can also devolve into the sophisticated ideal or primitive delusion of a single, holistic language.

It should be clear that the concept of language on which Bakhtin bases his theory of the novel is chiefly remarkable for its sense of manichean struggle, the ceaseless battle between centrifugal forces that seek to keep things apart, and centripetal forces that strive to make things cohere. This is a way to register the sacred/profane distinction linguistically: the most complete and complex reflection of these two great forces is found in human language and the best engine of language so understood is the novel.

Thus it is not surprising that the history of the novel can be read off as a story of struggle between different centrifugal and centripetal forces at different points in history. Novelness in the West is present perhaps first in ancient Greece, when “Everything serious had to have, and indeed, did have, its comic double,”23 as in the satyr plays that accompanied tragedy cycles in Athens. Roman literature, overly conscious of the struggle because of its inferiority complex toward anything Greek, invents a whole new series of travestying doubles, all of which pun more serious forms such as the Tragopodagra or Goat-tragedy of Lucian.

The struggle is not only necessary, it is ethical. It is not just a conflict, but a set of revolutions, in which the absolutist claims of an authoritarian language are overturned by the demonstration of language's multiplicity in parodying genres. Thus, even before the novel arises as a form in its own right in Hellenistic times, “These parodic-travestying forms prepared the ground for the novel in one very important, in fact decisive, aspect. They liberated the object from the power of language in which it had become entangled as if in a net; they destroyed the homogenizing power of myth over language; they freed consciousness from the power of the direct word (…). A distance arose between language and reality that was to prove an indispensable condition for the authentically realistic forms of discourse.”24

The struggle between languages that Bakhtin posits as the fundamental condition for the emergence of the novel is most productively perceived not as horizontal combat between centrifugal and centripetal forces, but as the vertical tension between high languages that claim authority precisely because they are unitary, and low languages that are so because they revel in the multi-languedness of their characteristic forms. It is not by chance that Bakhtin spends so much time and effort elucidating the historical development of stylistic puns as they are elaborated in anti-ecclesiastical parodies of various kinds, such as the cena cypriani or other versions of what are generically called parodia sacra: “The sacred, authoritative, direct word in another's language—that was the hero of this entire, grand parodic literature. In essence, therefore, Latin parody is a bilingual phenomenon: although there is only one language, this language is perceived and structured in the light of another language.”25 In the Middle Ages, this dispute between languages is present in such forms as the Dialogue Between Solomon and Marcolph, a struggle as Bakhtin says, “between a dismal sacred word and a cheerful folk word.”26 For all the humor of the parodia sacra, in them something very serious was unfolding: “The sacred Latin word was a foreign body that invaded the organism of the European languages. And throughout the Middle Ages, national languages, as organisms, repulsed this body (…). The repulsion of this foreign born sacred word was a dialogized operation, and was accomplished under cover of holiday and festival merrymaking,”27 but what, in effect, occurred in each case was a resistance to the deadly stasis of a doctrinal language that had forgotten that the sacred is never exclusive, but can be known only in its opposition to the profane, without which its articulation is beyond all capacity to be represented, even by a messenger of the gods who looks in both directions simultaneously.

I will not dwell here on other details of Bakhtin's just-so story, or etiological myth for this theory of the novel. Suffice it that he assumes that in the modern period, preeminently in Dostoevsky, of course, the struggle between sacred and profane languages continues to define the novel as a genre.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest, if only very sketchily, that Bakhtin's whole concept of dialogue and dialogue's premiere expression in novelness, is based on a theory of language that is not unique to him in his generation. If you will accept for the nonce that his liberating metalinguistics is a kind of the philology insofar as its master impulse is to remember the sacred by insisting on the profane, then it will be obvious that he bears much in common with that other great student of the history of the novel, Erich Auerbach.

What Bakhtin is calling novelness, Auerbach will term the ‘technique of multiple consciousness,’ the technique that is the culminating point of his history not of the real, or even Realism, but rather what he calls ‘the representation of reality’: The whole long narrative of Mimesis tells the tale of how ancient ideas about levels of literary representation—normative ideas about the need to keep separate the high and the low—were gradually subverted through the emergence of the modern novel as a distinct genre. Over the centuries a battle was fought to provide low speech and style with dignity: “The doctrine of the levels of style had no absolute validity. However different medieval and modern realism may be, they are at one in this basic attitude. And [he adds at the conclusion of his long study] it had long been clear to me how this medieval conception of art had evolved, and when and how the first break with classical theory had come about. It was the story of Christ, with its ruthless mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy which had conquered the classical rule of styles.”28 Auerbach will go on to distinguish between medieval realism and the modern novel, but central to both will be the need to find a middle way between high and low languages, each of which stand in for the poles of tension that can keep the sacred and profane in their necessary simultaneity.

Why should I end by pointing to similarities between conclusions drawn by a secular German Jew and a believing Russian Orthodox Christian? First of all because their very differences make clear just how urgent a problem the sacred was felt to be in their time, a time when in their respective countries governments ruled in the name of an authority that had all the trappings and assumptions of totalitarian religions. The Russian of socialist Realism and the German of the Nazis had ossified into images of Russian and German, each of which presumed the myth of being the only language as well as the myth of being a language that was totally unified. These are precisely the two myths that Bakhtin argues need to perish if the speech of diversity that is the foundational condition of the novel is to emerge. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that scholars of that generation should have obsessed a new version of philology, one in which multitiplicity, variety, and the necessity of simultaneity of the profane to any real presence of the sacred would be central.

In conclusion, let me then propose—very tentatively—a possible answer to the question that is this paper's title: why is god's name a pun? Perhaps it is because the only way that the sacred lets itself be known is in its simultaneity with the profane. If so much is the case, then the dialogic engagement with the other that govern all communication inheres in the very heart of the ineffable. Bakhtin's theory of the novel would seem to presume as much, suggesting finally that it is not only in parodies of the sacred that we should look for clues to novelness, but in the sacred itself.


  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His world. Tr. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 3.

  2. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. (Austin University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 8.

  3. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed., tr. Caryl Emerson. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 4.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 7.

  5. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination, Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 300.

  6. Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”, in The Dialogic Imagination, Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 49.

  7. South Atlantic Quarterly, 97: 3/4, 1998, Durham Duke UP.

  8. Mikhail Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Tr. Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), p. 2.

  9. Jose Luis Borges, “Death and the Compass,” in Collected Fiction. Tr. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking, 1998), p. 153.

  10. Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 1.

  11. In the lecture “The Joys and Rigors of Copulation: ‘Art’ and ‘Science’ in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” given at University of Copenhagen just before this conference on The Novelness of Bakhtin.

  12. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Ed. Ingeborg Heidemann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1966), p. 214.

  13. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Tr. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), p. 11.

  14. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Tr. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 15.

  15. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Tr. Joseph Ward Swain (New York, The Free Press, 1965), p. 52. The following citation is from p. 53-54.

  16. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations. Tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 264.

  17. Ibid., p. 266.

  18. Benjamin, “Leskov the Story Teller” in Illuminations. Tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 86.

  19. Ibid., p. 87.

  20. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 357.

  21. The Oxford Study Bible. Ed. M. Jack Suggs et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 64.

  22. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 270.

  23. Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse” in The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 58.

  24. Ibid., p. 60.

  25. Ibid., p. 75.

  26. Ibid., p. 76.

  27. Ibid., p. 77.

  28. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis. Tr. Willard R. Trask. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 555.

Deborah J. Haynes (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Haynes, Deborah J. “Bakhtin and the Visual Arts.” In A Companion to Art Theory, edited by Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, pp. 292-302. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

[In the following essay, Haynes discusses how Bakhtin's aesthetic theory might contribute to the study of the visual arts by making the viewing of and study of art more answerable and interactive.]

Since Bakhtin's writings consistently began to appear in print in the 1960s, his name has often been associated with concepts such as “carnival,” developed in Rabelais and His World, and “dialogue” or “dialogism,” developed in The Dialogical Imagination.1 But concentration on the carnivalesque or the dialogic has tended to skew the adaptation of Bakhtin's work by scholars in a wide range of scholarly disciplines. Among the disciplines in which scholars have fruitfully engaged his ideas are: communication and media studies, composition, cultural studies, education and educational theory, ethics, film and television, law and critical legal studies, linguistics and philosophy of language, literature, medicine and studies on aging, multicultural studies, philosophy, political theory, psychology and psychoanalysis, religion, sociology, theater and performance, and urban studies. Curiously, art historians, art theorists, and critics have been slow to adapt his concepts to analyses of visual culture and the visual arts.

However, the philosophical language developed by Bakhtin—from his earliest published essays in the 1920s to his last notes in the early 1970s—contributes greatly to aesthetics, and it offers a new set of questions with which to query visual art. Whether interpreting Russian icons, Russian Modernism, Impressionist and Postimpressionist painting, or contemporary art, his ideas generate significant new insights. This chapter offers a brief overview of Bakhtin's understanding of aesthetics and discusses specific concepts that are useful for the interpretation of works of art.


Although there is no clearly defined and universally understood definition of aesthetics in the present day, Bakhtin inherited modern aesthetic theories. He actively tried to refute formalist Kantian aesthetics; and he vehemently challenged the expressivist theories of German Neo-Kantians such as Theodor Lipps. Unlike both Kantians and Neo-Kantians, however, Bakhtin shunned orderly systematic thought. An analysis of his writing would suggest that he worked out his ideas by following the fragmentary meanderings of thought. Most aesthetic theories are concerned with the category of beauty, which is visible in nature and art, as in a glorious sunrise or in a photography or painting of a sunrise. Beauty may be less visible, or even invisible, in moral and intellectual activity, where cogency and coherence are a priority. These, of course, have their own inherent beauty, but this is different from beauty that is obvious in one's perception. Some give priority to the aesthetic object or work of art. Others privilege the perceiving subject, the viewer who looks and experiences. Bakhtin focused on the aesthetics of the creative process itself, on the activity of the artist or author who creates.

Since Alexander Baumgarten coined the term “aesthetics” in the 1730s, it has remained an ambiguous philosophical category. For Baumgarten, and for Kant who followed and expanded upon his ideas, aesthetics had to do with sensory knowledge or sensory cognition, which included but was not limited to the problem of beauty. Considered broadly, Bakhtin's interpretation of aesthetics fits into such a definition. He was concerned with how humans give form to their experience: how they perceive an object, text, or another person, and how they shape that perception into a synthesized whole. But Bakhtin did not focus upon beauty; rather, he developed an unusual vocabulary for describing the process by which we literally author one another, as well as artifacts such as texts and works of art. Concepts such as answerability and dialogue, outsideness and the chronotope, and unfinalizability were central to Bakhtin's aesthetics.

Still, Bakhtin never defined aesthetics explicitly. His early essays, especially “The problem of content, material, and form in verbal art,” contain his most sustained treatment of philosophical aesthetics (Bakhtin, 1990, pp. 257-325). Following Kant and Neo-Kantians such as Hermann Cohen, Bakhtin treated the aesthetic as a sphere in which the cognitive-theoretical and ethical-practical spheres may be brought together. But he pressed further than Kant in defining their activity. For Bakhtin, each of these spheres describes reality differently. By assuming primacy, cognition tends to be falsely separated from ethical evaluation and the aesthetic organization of reality. Unavoidably, if we try to establish cognition as a pure and unique process, we get caught in both value judgments and aesthetic decisions. The realm of ethical action differs from the cognitive, because here one encounters conflict over moral duty or obligation, but it cannot be separated from cognitive functioning. Consequently, neither cognition nor action alone can provide a foundation for philosophy.

For Bakhtin, the aesthetic sphere is fundamentally different from the other two, because in artistic creation reality and life interpenetrate with art. As he wrote:

Aesthetic activity does not create a reality that is wholly new. Unlike cognition and performed action, which create nature and social humanity, art celebrates, adorns, and recollects. … It enriches and completes them, and above all else it creates the concrete intuitive unity of these two worlds. It places man in nature … it humanizes nature and naturalizes man.

(Bakhtin, 1990, pp. 278-9)

This statement articulates why Bakhtin focused on the aesthetic dimension of life. By unifying nature and humanity (and cognition and action), aesthetics could become the basis for a new approach to philosophy.

Bakhtin understood aesthetics as a “sub-function” or sub-category of the broader category of architectonics, as Michael Holquist has observed (in Bakhtin, 1990, pp. xxiii-xxiv). Like aesthetics, architectonics is not a strict formal cognitive structure, but it describes how relationships between self and other, self and object, self and world are structured. As Holquist wrote, the architectonic activity of authoring or building a text parallels the activity within life of building a self (Holquist, 1990, p. 64). Both are structures in a sense, though the first leaves physical evidence, while the second is often a hidden process. Bakhtin's approach to aesthetics is thus unique. It is based not only on categories such as the aesthetic (the aesthetic attitude or aesthetic object) or aesthetic values (truth, goodness, or beauty), but also on the phenomenology of self-other relations, relations that are embodied in actual bodies, in space and time. In some of his essays Bakhtin treated traditional aesthetic categories such as detachment, empathy, isolation, and the aesthetic object, as well as theories of art and the relationship of art and morality. But in discussing each of these categories and topics, he focused on the unique human being, located spatially and temporally and thus having a particular relationship to all other persons, objects, and events in the world. An analysis of Bakhtin's writing demonstrates that he was compelled to understand the nature of these interrelationships.

Humans engage in aesthetic activity in order to express and to shape perception and experience. Bakhtin called such activity “authoring,” another name for creative activity. He did not limit his interpretation of authorship to literary texts, but he saw this as a process involving other persons and nature. Although he wrote much about literature, he occasionally mentioned works of art. To author, in Bakhtin's vocabulary, is to create. But just as he avoided clear definitions of aesthetics and creativity, Bakhtin never produced a systematic theory of the creative process. In fact, his early essays are both an implicit and explicit critique of unified and ordered systems. In “Toward a philosophy of the act” Bakhtin used the term theoretism (also translated as theoreticism) to describe his aversion to unified and orderly structures or systems (Bakhtin, 1993).

While Bakhtin's critique of theoretism was neither sustained nor systematic, it is pertinent to consider in relation to theories of art in general. In “Toward a philosophy of the act,” Bakhtin was adamant about the limitations of theory. “Any kind of practical orientation of my life within the theoretical world is impossible,” he wrote:

The theoretical world is obtained through an essential and fundamental abstraction from the fact of my unique being and from the moral sense of that fact “as if I did not exist”. … It cannot determine my life as an answerable performing of deeds, it cannot provide any criteria for the life of practice, the life of the deed.

(Bakhtin, 1993, p. 9)

Bakhtin made two interrelated assertions here. On the one hand, theory cannot provide the basis for responsible action in the world. Immersion in the theoretical too often takes place at the expense of the everyday practical realm. Theory does not translate directly or easily into daily life and experience. On the other hand, a specific act or deed (delo or postupok) does provide a basis for creating an adequate orientation in life. Where theoretical arenas do not provide a standpoint for determining the meaning of life, specific acts do. Bakhtin identified theoretism, his name for all kinds of theories isolated from action, as the enemy. Nevertheless, his resistance did not preclude writing theoretical texts. In many of his essays Bakhtin avoided systematic and practical analyses of individual texts and authors, but he articulated the basis of his aesthetics and his notion of creativity.


Bakhtin's ideas—answerability, dialogue, monologism, polyphony, outsideness, chronotope, the carnivalesque, unfinalizability, and heteroglossia, to name but a few—not only offer scholars categories for aesthetics, but also for analyzing visual art. Whether describing the breakdown of traditional genres and the reemergence of new narrative structures in contemporary art or creating taxonomies for interpreting works of art in relation to one another, his ideas are enormously generative. In what follows, I indicate possibilities and directions for such analysis by referring primarily to painting, but Bakhtin's concepts are widely applicable to other media within the visual arts.

Any discussion of the usefulness of Bakhtin's ideas must begin with a brief description of his understanding of the phenomenology of the self and self-other relationships, which he articulated with the concepts of answerability and the dialogic. Unlike some of his contemporaries such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Henri Bergson, Bakhtin's goal was not to create a moral or philosophical system. Instead, most of his essays are predicated on the presupposition that the human being is the center around which all action in the real world, including art, is organized. In his writing, the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ are the fundamental categories of value that make all action and creativity possible, as in the work of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas.

In Bakhtin's early essays this sense of the relationship of self and other was expressed with the concept of answerability. Art and life answer to each other much as human beings answer each other's needs and inquiries in time and space. Answerability was his way of naming the fact that art, and hence the creative activity of the artist, is always related, answerable, to life and lived experience. For him, the idea that we are answerable, indeed obligated, through our deeds is the basis of the architectonic structure of the world and the basis of artistic creativity. Thus, his interpretation of creativity emphasized the profound moral obligation we bear toward others. Such obligation is never solely theoretical, but is an individual's concrete response to actual persons in specific situations. Because we do not exist alone, as isolated consciousnesses, our creative work is always answering the other. Answerability contains the moral imperative that the artist remain engaged with life, that the artist answer for life. At every point Bakhtin insisted upon obvious ethical aspects of creativity.

To what extent can we speak about answerability in individual paintings or artworks? Answerability, as responsibility or moral obligation toward others and expressed as an artist's concrete response to actual persons in specific situations, may seem obvious, as when artists such as Leon Golub and Nancy Spero address social and political issues. It may also be irrelevant, if an artist is most concerned with commercial success. But nearly all art is answerable in the sense that it evolves in relation to history and historical artifacts, to personal experience and reflection, and to identifiable formal issues.

Whereas answerability was a broad concept in his early essays, Bakhtin developed a more linguistic interpretation of this process in his book on Dostoevsky, where he began writing about dialogue and the dialogic. The concept of dialogue lends itself to facile application, because everyone has a common-sense understanding of what it is. An individual talks. Another person listens and responds. In a work of art, an artist enters into dialogue (in actual, historical, or mythological time) and expresses something about a place, person, or event. Bakhtin, however, meant more that this. As Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson have shown, he used the concept of dialogue and the dialogic in at least three distinct ways (Morson and Emerson, 1990, pp. 130-1). First, dialogue refers to the fact that every utterance is by nature dialogic. An utterance can never be abstract, but must occur between two persons: speaker and listener, creator and audience, artist and viewer. It is always directed at somebody in a living, concrete, unrepeatable set of circumstances. For instance, a Russian icon is directed toward the Orthodox believer. The paintings of Claude Monet may be interpreted as a dialogue with his contemporaries, artists such as Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, James Whistler, and John Singer Sargent, and with his critics and dealers. Richard Long's environmental and site-specific installations may be interpreted as a profound dialogue with the physical environment. This range of dialogues shows that the self is never autonomous, but always exists in a nexus of formative relationships with persons, places, or events that are reflected in an artwork.

Dialogue understood as utterances that are directed to someone in a unique situation can be either monologic or dialogic. This is the second way in which Bakhtin used the term. Although his discussions sometimes lack clarity, monologism means that dialogue becomes empty and lifeless. As he wrote in ‘Notes made in 1970-71’: ‘Take a dialogue and remove the voices … remove the intonations … carve out abstract concepts and judgments from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness and that's how you get dialectics’ (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 147). Bakhtin argued that modern thought, including literature and art, has been dominated by a narrow dialectical monologism and by monologic conceptions of truth. Dostoevsky, he claimed, was the first truly polyphonic writer, who thought through paradoxes, differing points of view, and unique consciousnesses. To be polyphonic, communication and social interaction must be characterized by contestation rather than automatic consensus.

Even though the word polyphonic refers to sound, can we read brushstrokes within a painting or chisel marks on a stone sculpture as polyphonous? I would suggest that the unique visual contest of color or directionality of marking in an artwork can express a dialogic and polyphonic sensibility. Colors meet and interact. Complex lines together define three-dimensional form. Analogously, there is an implicit dialogue in any artist's serial procedure, where a similar scene is painted under differing conditions, or the same form is sculpted numerous times. To use Monet as an example again, in Bordighera on the Mediterranean coast, he painted from slightly different vantage points and under differing conditions in order to record objective changes in weather, lighting, the sea, and vegetation. His series of paintings of grainstacks from 1890 were the result of these experiments on the Mediterranean. Later, in Venice he experimented with new approaches in order to eliminate time as a variable in his paintings, by concentrating on the interrelationships of atmosphere, light, and color.

Polyphony presupposes the third and most general sense of dialogue. Bakhtin understood life itself as dialogue:

To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.

(Bakhtin, 1984, p. 293)

Dialogue, therefore, is epistemological. Only through it do we know ourselves, other persons, and the world. Working with paint and canvas, with chisels and stone, with earth and sticks, or only with voice and body in a solo performance piece, an artist engages in a dialogue with perception and shares knowledge about the world.

Works of art therefore may express not only a profoundly answerable and dialogic relationship with persons and with the environment, but they may also be interpreted in relation to time, duration, and change. Although he did not create a typology of time, Bakhtin wrote about “small time” and “great time,” which are related to Fernand Braudel's concept of longue durée. A work of art considered in “small time” would be examined in relation to its present context, as well as the recent past and foreseeable future. The category of “great time” is more useful for understanding cultural artifacts and whole cultures. “Great time” means the “infinite and unfinalized dialogue in which no meaning dies” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 169). By these definitions, the canonical works of art history exist in such great time, while the artworks created by contemporary artists in their studios inhabit small time. However, the ability to discern how an artwork exists in time is based not on a grand historical metanarrative, but on a nuanced interpretation of outsideness and the chronotope.

With the concept of outsideness, Bakhtin tried to show that both self and other are knowable because of the boundaries that frame and define the self over against others and the world. The artist's creative activity is also possible only because of these boundaries. Working at the temporal and spatial boundaries of the outer body, as well as at the axiological boundaries of inner life, an artist creates new visions. This is especially clear when considering both historical traditions and contemporary examples of landscape painting, photography, and sculpture. In order to understand fully the effects of urbanization and globalization, for example, we need an other, an outside vantage point that functions to demonstrate both what cities do and do not offer. Artists who represent the rural, country life, and wilderness—from John Constable and Thomas Cole to Alfredo Jaar and Noboru Tsubaki—provide that outside standpoint.

Where dialogue describes the process and practice of communication and relationship among selves or objects, the concept of the chronotope describes the time/space nexus in which life exists and creativity is possible (Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 84-258). The idea of the chronotope is fairly easy to understand. There is no experience outside of space and time, both of which always change. Subjectivity dictates that an artist create objects that are always constituted differently. The fact that all conditions of experience are determined by space and time, which are themselves variable, means that every artwork exists in a unique chronotope. Within any situation there may be many different chronotopes, values, and beliefs, and these derive from actual social relations.

How do we gain understanding of a chronotope different from our own? Critics and historians of art unavoidably must wrestle with this. If a work of art is only understood in relation to the local and particular, then it will be of narrow artistic or scholarly significance. An art historian or critic (and a viewer in general) must recognize not only his or her own chronotope, but also the unique chronotopes of the artist and object. Only then can one give an object a place in great time. An historian therefore straddles two chronotopes, his or her own and the historical context of the work.

Bakhtin tried to demonstrate this intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships in literature through discussions of literary genre. For instance, the epic (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, or the Gilgamesh story) is characterized by a chronotope that values a national heroic past; it remains rooted in tradition; and temporal distance separates it from the present. By contrast, the novel, with its worlds in the making, is usually rooted in more present experience and multilayered consciousness. The chronotope of the novel expresses an open-ended relationship to the future that is lacking in the epic.

In analyzing works of visual art, from painting and film to graphic design and comic strips, such literary insights are useful, as Jay Ladin has shown in his essay “Fleshing out the chronotope” (in Emerson, 1999). We could describe differences in the way a chronotope in painting is expressed, depending upon its genre. History painting expresses a different self-consciousness about historical events than does landscape painting, portraiture (including self-portraiture), or images of religious or mythological subjects. We might compare the historical chronotopes expressed in Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784) and Eugène Delacroix's Death at Sardanapolous (1827-8); or we might compare the mythological chronotopes in Ivan Kramskoi's Christ in the Wilderness (1872) and Thomas Cole's series, The Voyage of Life (1842). When a particular moment is evoked through the image of a place or person, it expresses a unique chronotope, as would be obvious in comparing Ilya Repin's portraits of the writer Leo Tolstoy (1887 and 1901). As in the case of literary texts, each genre of painting could be examined in terms of the distinct ways in which time and space are represented.

We also might examine chronotopic motifs that function as condensed reminders of particular kinds of time and space. For instance, images of roads, of structures such as churches, castles, or bridges, and of elements in the natural world such as trees or mountains all have metaphorical resonances. Each image is saturated with a specific sense of time and history and carries all of the specificity associated with a particular faith, family, journey, or environment. To speak of chronotopic motifs offers another way of articulating how images carry symbolic meanings. In the end, the chronotope helps us to explain the fact that everything happens not only within a nexus of answerable dialogues, but also that no artifact of culture ever exists outside of a particular historical place and time.

An example of Bakhtin's own sustained interpretation of chronotopes and chronotopic motifs can be seen in his 1965 study of Rabelais, Rabelais and His World, which was first translated and published in English in 1968. One could say, for instance, that he studied a French novelist from the 1530s in order to relate his insights to the 1930s in Russia. In this book, he moved away from moralistic nineteenth-century readings of carnival and the grotesque and toward a reconstruction of the folk culture of carnivalesque laughter. He had also explored such themes in essays such as “forms of time and of the chronotope” (in The Dialogic Imagination), but in Rabelais and His World carnival became an example of a genre type. In carnival, and in folk culture more generally, official institutions as well as definitions of the sacred are intermittently transcended or reversed. Bakhtin's reading of Rabelais cannot be understood as solely an historical study of carnival, for he sought to show that the world is a place where the physical drama of the body (through birth, coitus, eating, drinking, evacuation, and death) is played out. In analyzing phenomena such as laughter, masks, grotesque images of the body, and various forms of debasement, Bakhtin created an encyclopedia of chronotopic motifs and of folk culture more generally, showing that the body is actually the foundation of society and of our relationships to nature. This work has been extremely useful to scholars analyzing historical artworks such as Giotto's Last Judgment (Miles, 1989, pp. 147-50), Diane Arbus's modern photography (Budick, 1997), and the work of Ukrainian artist Ilya Kabakov (Tupitsyn, 1996), to name but a few.

Unfinalizability is one of the most significant core concepts in Bakhtin's writing, and it appears in a variety of contexts. As Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson have written:

[unfinalizability] … designates a complex of values central to his thinking: innovation, “surprisingness,” the genuinely new, openness, potentiality, freedom, and creativity. … His paraphrase of one of Dostoevsky's ideas also expresses his own: “Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate work 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.”

(Morson and Emerson, 1990, pp. 36-7)

Unfinalizability may help us to articulate complex answers to questions about particular works of art. When is a work finished? Can it ever be truly finished? When is a critical perspective or audience reception complete? The fact that sculptures such as the Samothracian Nike or paintings such as Leonardo's Mona Lisa have continued to generate scholarly and public interest for centuries verifies the central insight of Bakhtin's concept.

In Bakhtin's formulation, the sense of freedom and openness that is encompassed by the idea of unfinalizability applies not only to works of literature and art, but it is also an intrinsic condition of our daily lives. Such creativity is ubiquitous and unavoidable, and, as noted earlier, it should not be separated from one's responsibility toward others and toward the world. What can ever be fully finalized? There always is a tentative quality to one's work, one's action, and to life itself. Unfinalizability has at least two distinct levels: the ways we need others in order to finalize the self; and the ultimate unfinalizability of all things, events, and persons. Art and life are ultimately open-ended. Even though a person's life is finalized in death, that person's work lives on, to be extended and developed by others, an insight we certainly know vis-à-vis important historical artworks. The creative process, too, is unfinalizable, except insofar as an artist says, somewhat arbitrarily, “I stop here.” Precisely because it is always open to change and transformation, artistic work can be a model for the possibility of change in the larger world outside the studio. Indeed, unfinalizability gives us a way to speak about the problems of representing the changing world through the artistic lens of our diverse and ever-changing subjectivities.


Bakhtin's writing anticipated many contemporary concerns; and it predates a variety of movements within literary, visual, and cultural studies, such as Neo-Historicism, Poststructuralism, and Postmodernism. This is a key to his ongoing significance within many scholarly disciplines. In late essays and notes written in the 1970s before he died, Bakthin touched on numerous issues that need further interpretation by art historians and theorists of art. For example, his ideas about creative understanding and the uniqueness of the humanities, as well as his broad interpretation of genres, could be usefully developed.

Bakhtin's theoretical vocabulary moves us from a narrow interpretation of aesthetic theory to broader considerations of the relationship of art and life. To see another life for its significance qua life: this should be the goal of aesthetic experience and of art according to Bakhtin. Perhaps the most significant contribution of Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas to contemporary aesthetics, art theory, and art history is his affirmation that art must exist in an integral relationship with life. Art for its own sake is mere artifice, but art connected to life affirms the world-forming potential of the artist's creative vision and creative voice.


  1. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, Russia, and grew up in Vilnius, a Lithuanian town called ‘the Jerusalem of the North’ because of its rich Jewish intellectual heritage. He studied philology and classics at Petrograd University between 1914 and 1918, and later lived in small Russian cities such as Nevel, Vitebsk, Kustanai, Saransk, Savelovo, as well as Leningrad and Moscow. Bakhtin's years in Nevel and Vitebsk overlapped with the period that Marc Chagall and Kasimir Malevich worked there, although it seems that he did not know them. For most of his life, Bakhtin was active in both literary and philosophical circles, but in the mid-1920s he contracted osteomyelities, which limited his mobility. During periods of harsh repression, Bakhtin and his wife Elena Aleksandrovna were exiled from Moscow; he taught at high school and worked as a bookkeeper. Bakhtin was eighty years old when he died in 1975; and only since his death has his oeuvre become widely known throughout the world.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, Michael Holquist, (ed.), trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1984a) Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. and ed. by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press. Originally published 1963.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1984b) Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press. Originally published 1965.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. by Vern W. McGee, Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, (eds), University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1990) Art and Answerability: The Early Essays of M. M. Bakhtin, trans. by Vadim Liapunov and Kenneth Brostrom, Michael Holquist, (ed.), University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act, trans. by Vadim Liapunov, Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist (eds), University of Texas Press. Originally published 1986.

Budick, Ariella (1997) “Factory seconds: Diane Arbus and the imperfections in mass culture,” Art Criticism, 12, 50-70.

Clark, Katerina and Holquist, Michael (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin, Harvard University Press.

Emerson, Caryl (1997) The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, Princeton University Press.

Emerson, Caryl (ed.) (1999) Critical Essays on Mikhail Bakhtin, G. K. Hall.

Haynes, Deborah J. (1995) Bakhtin and the Visual Arts, Cambridge University Press.

Haynes, Deborah J. (1998) “Answers first, questions later: A Bakhtinian interpretation of Monet's Mediterranean paintings,” Semiotic Inquiry, 18, 217-30.

Hirschkop, Ken (1999) Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy, Oxford University Press.

Hirschkop, Ken and Shepherd, David (eds) (1989) Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press.

Hitchcock, Peter (ed.) (1998) “Bakhtin/‘Bakhtin’: Studies in the archive and beyond,” special issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly, 97.

Holquist, Michael (1990) Dialogism, Bakhtin and His World, Routledge.

Medvedev, P. M. (1985) The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, trans. by Albert J. Wehrle, Harvard University Press. Originally published 1986.

Miles, Margaret R. (1989) Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West, Beacon Press.

Morson, Gary Saul and Emerson, Caryl (eds) (1989) Rethinking Bakhtin, Extensions and Challenges, Northwestern University Press.

Morson, Gary Saul and Emerson, Caryl (1990) Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Stanford University Press.

Shepherd, David (ed.) (1998) The Contexts of Bakhtin: Philosophy, Authorship, Aesthetics, Harwood Academic Publishers.

Todorov, Tzvetan (1984) Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, trans. by Wlad Godzich, University of Minneapolis Press. Originally published 1981.

Tupitsyn, Victor (1996) “Kabakov non ha bisogno di medaglie” [Kabakov does not need medals], D'Ars, 148, 43-7.

Voloshinov, V. N. (1986) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. by L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Harvard University Press. Originally published 1929.

Voloshinov, V. N. (1987) Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, trans. by I. R. Titunik, Indiana University Press. Originally published 1927.


Bakhtin, Mikhail (Contemporary Literary Criticism)