Sunday, 2 October 2016

Know your theorist - Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin

The Twentieth Century – The Century of Gifted and Innovative Critics

The twentieth century produced a remarkable number of gifted and innovative literary critics. Indeed it could be argued that some of the finest literary minds of the age turned to criticism as the medium best adapted to their complex and speculative range of interests. This has sometimes given rise to regret among those who insist on a clear demarcation between ‘creative’ (primary) writing on the one hand and ‘critical’ (secondary) texts on the other. Yet this distinction is far from self-evident. It is coming under strain at the moment as novelists and poets grow increasingly aware of the conventions that govern their writing and the challenge of consciously exploiting and subverting those conventions. And the critics for their part – some of them at least – are beginning to question their traditional role as humble servants of the literary text with no further claim upon the reader’s interest or attention. Quite simply, there are texts of literary criticism and theory that, for various reasons – stylistic complexity, historical influence, range of intellectual command – cannot be counted a mere appendage to those other ‘primary’ texts.

Literary Theory and Human Sciences

A speculative approach to questions of literary theory has proved to have striking consequences for the human sciences at large. This breaking down of disciplinary bounds is among the most significant developments in recent critical thinking. As philosophers and historians, among others, come to recognize the rhetorical complexity of the texts they deal with, so literary theory takes on a new dimension of interest and relevance. It is scarcely appropriate to think of a writer like Derrida as practising ‘literary criticism’ in any conventional sense of the term. For one thing, he is as much concerned with ‘philosophical’ as with ‘literary’ texts, and has indeed actively sought to subvert (or deconstruct) such tidy distinctions.

Bakhtin – A Pioneering Figure in Twentieth Century Philosophy and Literature

Mikhail Bakhtin is one of the most influential theorists of philosophy as well as literary studies. His work on dialogue and discourse has changed the way in which we read texts – both literary and cultural – and his practice of philosophy in literary refraction and philological exploration has made him a pioneering figure in the twentieth-century convergence of the two disciplines. One of the most remarkable facts about Bakhtin is that, the concepts that he developed in the midst of his obscurity in Soviet Russia so came to dominate Western literary theory towards the end of the twentieth century.

Myriad literary-critical papers published in academic journals and books in the humanities utilize Bakhtinian concepts such as: chronotope; dialogism; polyphony; heteroglossia; and most famously, carnival. 

Bakhtin as a Teacher

In 1936, Bakhtin started to teach at the Mordovia Pedagogical Institute in Saransk, although he was forced to leave the following year because of an imminent Stalinist purge; after the defence of his doctoral thesis on Rabelais at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, Moscow, in 1947, and after changes in the political situation, Bakhtin was once again allowed to teach. In 1957, he became chair of the department of Russian and World Literature at the University of Saransk. How did this relatively obscure academic, who lived through Stalinism and other enormous political and social upheavals, come to dominate the literary theoretical scene in the West at the end of the century? To answer this question, the multiple rediscoveries and recuperations of Bakhtin need to be briefly charted.

Bakhtin’s Chief Influences

Influenced by the work of the neo-Kantian Cohen, and the philosophers Bergson and Buber, Bakhtin’s early essays explore the situated subject in a dynamic architectonics of self and other. In his essay ‘Art and Answerability’, published in Den’iskusstva (The Day of Art) in 1919, Bakhtin issues his earliest formulation of a dialogic (or doublevoiced – see below) relationship between two realms: those of art and life. Suggesting that human beings usually keep these two modes of being separate, Bakhtin asks what will guarantee their connection and ‘inner interpenetration’ in the unified subject.


Dialogism is approached again in a manuscript worked upon during 1920 to 1923, called ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’. In this text Bakhtin introduces some dialogic terminology, such as ‘architectonics’ (a dynamic mode of construction or building a complex object, such as a literary text), and ‘consummation’ (the way in which parts of a text get organized into an aesthetic, fictive whole), to reveal the ways in which what appear to be binary oppositions – such as between author/hero – are actually in a dynamic simultaneous relationship of ‘an inclusive also/and’. Critics have noted that ‘Author and Hero’ explores analogies between aesthetics and theology: ‘Because each geroj (character, protagonist, hero) lacks full awareness of its underlying principle, which “is bestowed . . . as a gift,” authors create unity, for their godlike knowledge exceeds their characters’ by an excess or “surplus” (ixbytok).’

Texts that found its way into ‘Western’ Critical Discourse

So what were the major texts that were so eagerly received by twentieth-century Western critics? Bakhtin’s dissertation (first published 1965) was translated into English with the title Rabelais and His World in 1968 (with a fragment appearing in volume 41 of Yale French Studies), Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) in 1973, The Dialogic Imagination (1972) in 1981, and six essays from Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (Aesthetics of verbal creativity, 1979) as Speech Genres and Other Late Essays in 1986. It is through these texts that innovative Bakhtinian terms and concepts entered Western critical discourse.


Carnival is one of Bakhtin’s most well-used terms, initially derived from Rabelais and His World, which is ostensibly a study of the writings of François Rabelais (1494–1553). Carnival is a subversive force most clearly visible in the laughter and bodily humour of folk culture, in particular the pageants and carnivals of the Middle Ages which, Bakhtin argues, continue in transposed form in literary texts.6 Carnival is also a lived experience – lived by the people in opposition to authority – with no specific or determinate outcome except for an ambivalent mode of ongoing subversion. In relation to Rabelais, Bakhtin shows how the official pomp and circumstance of the Church and the feudal state are parodied and ridiculed via rituals that foreground low bodily functions, such as excretion and transgressive and grotesque sexuality. Some critics interpret in an allegorical fashion Bakhtin’s account of carnival, as being a critique of Stalinism. The literary form that best embodies carnival is that of the grotesque, a parodic and subversive mode of writing exemplified by Cervantes, Rabelais and Shakespeare. Bakhtin’s work on carnival continues in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, where he also developed the concept of dialogism, or, double-voicing. Applying to language in general and specific instances of literary expression, dialogism means the co-presence of two voices in one. Awareness of co-present voices may come about through study of rich multiple context – the text’s heteroglossia – or, through an awareness of subtle shifts of the presentation of voices drawn from a particular discourse in a literary text.

Function of Dialogic Language

In the latter case, Bakhtin suggests that dialogic language functions as if in quotation marks; in other words, each dialogic expression foregrounds that it is in a self-aware relationship, or tension, with another voice. A good example is that of irony, where not only does a statement have two competing meanings, but this double-voiced structure is deliberately aimed at a listener or receiver. If a text presents multiple voices, including the author’s or the narrator’s, without placing them in a hierarchy, then Bakhtin suggests that we experience polyphony. Such a text is perceived as more democratic than those that order speakers or voices according to hierarchical systems or ideologies; Bakhtin’s ideal polyphonic writer is Dostoevsky.

In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin introduced the concept of the chronotope in his essay ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics’. Essentially a way of perceiving the ‘intrinsic connectedness’7 of time and space in literature, Bakhtin argues that the chronotope is also formative for genre. Bakhtin utilizes the chronotope to explain the anachronistic forms that survive in literary genres long after their historical development should have annihilated them; for example, a literary device created in the nineteenth century may still function anachronistically in the twentieth century, when society, and its understanding and practice of art and literature, has radically changed. As a constitutive intersection of the temporal and spatial axes that generate texts within a genre, Bakhtin allows for the simultaneous existence of synchronic (actual) and diachronic (developmental) features. As a concrete example he examines the so-called ‘Greek romance’ and shows how the adventures that befall the lovers or protagonists in these narratives do not influence them in any way. From a contemporary perspective, we would expect life events to be formative, leading to character development and maturity; but this is not the case in the Greek romance. Instead, temporality is not progressive but simultaneous, and ‘there is a sharp hiatus between . . . moments of biographical time, a hiatus that leaves no trace in the life of the heroes or in their personalities’.

Chronotope and Extratemporality

But what does this adventure-time, extratemporality, or time axis of the chronotope, coincide with spatially? It coincides with an ‘abstract’ expanse of space whereby adventure-time can be played out. Distance and proximity are technical necessities for the functioning of adventure-time, the random contingency of meetings suddenly happening (or, just as importantly not occurring), what Bakhtin calls a logic of random disjunctions. Instead of life’s normal progression, the Greek romance is punctuated by abnormal catastrophic punctuations in time, whereby powerful superhuman and inhuman forces take control of events. Bakhtin argues that with this chronotope, for all its adventures and mishaps, there is an overall stasis: the characters remain the same throughout, even though they have passed through, and have been tested by, powerful events. In other words, the chronotope of the Greek romance is not developmental, but an affirmation of identity.

A ‘spirit’ finds himself among dead ‘souls’

Modern literature begins in the Divine Comedy with just such an intricately imagined excursion: Dante Alighieri’s innovative use of the dialogue of the dead – by no means new in itself – places the solid, shadow-casting body of a living, ongoing consciousness among the variously judged shades of the next world; the upshot is a defamiliarization on both sides. In Bakhtin’s terminology, a ‘spirit’ finds himself among dead ‘souls’, the otherworldly products of finished worldly lives – directly fashioned works, as we might call them, of the ‘aesthetic activity’ of the Almighty. The author outside the work imagines himself as its hero, and his sphere of action is God’s workshop of souls, where the great cosmic labour goes on.

Dante’s Audacious ‘adventure of knowledge’: The Root of the Modern European novel
Dante’s audacious fiction aimed at jolting a whole social order chaotically out of joint into seeing itself for what it is might have failed as a spur to praxis in the historical world of his time and ever after; as an adventure of knowledge, though, it is not only as new and effectual as ever, but also the paradigm for all modern acts of literature. Its essential gesture is repeated as much in The Canterbury Tales and the work of William Blake as it is in the last poem written by Geoffrey Hill. And it is at the root, too, of the European novel: Bakhtin’s own most favoured heir to Dante’s omni-temporal imagination is his fellow Russian Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky had before him, of course, the example of Nikolai
Gogol’s Dead Souls, intended (in Bakhtin’s view, misguidedly) (EN, 28) as the first part of a Russian Divine Comedy in prose.

The correlation of Dante and Dostoevsky

The correlation of Dante and Dostoevsky is made quite explicit in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. This temporal ordering of Bakhtin’s pantheon dramatizes for us the fact that the modern literary hero closest to him in time and culture is in some sense a throwback to modern literature’s first great figure: that the two figures most widely sundered in time link up over the heads of intervening figures who between them mark the stages of a growing self-consciousness of history in the West. The unmerged though still only externally juxtaposed voices of Dante’s poem give way to the dynamically interlocutory voices of Dostoevsky’s prose. That late-mediaeval polyphony has been freed from its stasis is for Bakhtin the signal cultural achievement of a modernity which has otherwise proved itself only too tragically productive of social and spiritual pathologies.

Bakhtinian motifs have their Inspiration in Dante

It cannot escape an attentive reader that many of the perennial Bakhtinian motifs have their germ in Dante. Before all else, there is the idea of knowledge as experiential, incarnational, chronotopic – of truth as a matter of pilgrimage and of personal encounter with a great diversity of thoroughly, indeed intensely, individualized persons.

For more on Bakhtin, kindly read the following source(s)

Lane, J. Richard. Fifty Key Literary Theorists. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Pechey, Graham. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

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