Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (Russian: Михаил Михайлович Бахти́н) (November 17, 1895 – March 7, 1975) was a Russian philosopher and literary scholar, who wrote influential works of literary and rhetorical theory and criticism. Bakhtin made significant contributions to the vocabulary of literary criticism, such as dialogism, polyphony and carnivalization. These ideas and this new critical language allowed him to investigate the artistic style of the novel, starting with Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had previously been criticized as lacking in style. Dialogism allowed him to analyze Dostoevsky's creation of character as never fixed, but always open to the penetration of the word of the other. Polyphony meant that as an artist, Dostoevsky gave "free reign" to his characters, allowing their interaction to determine the direction the action would take, not some predetermined plot. Polyphony was the concept of dialogism applied to the construction of plot.
Together with the Russian Formalists and the semiotician Yuri Lotman, Bakhtin helped to shape the field of literary theory in the twentieth century. His work was largely unknown until the post-Stalinist period of the late 1950s, when Russian scholars rediscovered Bakhtin's work, and his fame quickly grew. Because he had been exiled during the dark days of Stalinism it was even more surprising that he was still alive. In his later life Bakhtin was lionized by Soviet intellectuals and, after his death in 1975, critics such as Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov brought Bakhtin to the attention of the Francophone world, and from there his popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries continued to grow. In the late 1980s Bakhtin's work experienced a surge of popularity in the West, in part due to the championing of his ideas by critics like Katarina Clark and Michael Holquist. He continues to be regarded as one of the most important theorists of literature and culture of the twentieth century.
Bakhtin was born in Orel, Russia, outside of Moscow, to an old family of the nobility. His father was the manager of a bank and worked in several cities. For this reason Bakhtin spent his early childhood years in Orel, Vilnius (Lithuania) and then Odessa, where in 1913, he allegedly joined the historical and philological faculty at the local university. He later transferred to Petersburg University to join his brother Nikolai. It is here that Bakhtin was greatly influenced by the classicist F. F. Zelinski whose works contain the beginnings of concepts elaborated by Bakhtin. Bakhtin completed his studies in 1918 and moved to Nevel, a city in western Russia where he worked as a schoolteacher for two years. It was at this time that the first “Bakhtin Circle” formed. The group comprised of intellectuals with varying interests, but all shared a love for the discussion of literary, religious, and political topics. Included in this group were Valentin Volosinov and, eventually, P. N. Medvedev who joined the group later in Vitebsk. German philosophy was the topic talked about most frequently and, from this point forward, Bakhtin considered himself more a philosopher than a literary scholar. It is in Nevel, also, that Bakhtin worked tirelessly on a large work concerning moral philosophy that was never published in its entirety. However, in 1919, a short section of this work was published and given the title “Art and Responsibility”. This piece constitutes Bakhtin’s first published work. Bakhtin relocated to Vitebsk 1920. It was here, in 1921, that Bakhtin married Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovič. Later, in 1923, Bakhtin was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a bone disease that ultimately led to the amputation of his leg in 1938. This illness hampered his productivity and rendered him an invalid.
In 1924, Bakhtin moved to Leningrad where he assumed a position at the Historical Institute and provided consulting services for the State Publishing House. It is at this time that Bakhtin decided to share his work with the public, but just before “On the Question of the Methodology of Aesthetics in Written Works” was to be published, the journal in which it was to appear stopped publication. This work was eventually published fifty-one years later. The repression and misplacement of his manuscripts was something that would plague Bakhtin throughout his career. In 1929, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art, Bakhtin’s first major work, was published. It is here that Bakhtin introduces the concept of “dialogism.” However, just as this revolutionary book was introduced, Bakhtin was accused of participating in the Russian Orthodox Church's underground movement. The veracity of this charge is not known, even today. Consequently, during one of the many purges of artists and intellectuals that Josef Stalin conducted during the early years of his rule, Bakhtin was sentenced to exile in Siberia but appealed on the grounds that, in his weakened state, it would kill him. Instead, he was sentenced to six years of 'internal exile' in Kazakhstan.
Bakhtin spent these six years working as a bookkeeper in the town of Kustanai, during which time Bakhtin wrote several important essays, including “Discourse in the Novel.” In 1936 he taught courses at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute in Saransk. An obscure figure in a provincial college, he dropped out of view and taught only occasionally. In 1937 Bakhtin moved to Kimry, a town located a couple hundred kilometers from Moscow. Here, Bakhtin completed work on a book concerning the eighteenth-century German novel which was subsequently accepted by the Sovetski Pisatel’ (Soviet Writers') Publishing House. However, the only copy of the manuscript disappeared during the upheaval caused by the German invasion.
After the amputation of his leg in 1938, Bakhtin’s health improved and he became a more prolific writer. From 1940 until the end of World War II, Bakhtin lived in Moscow where he submitted a dissertation on François Rabelais which could not be defended until the war ended. In 1946 and 1949 the defense of this dissertation divided the scholars of Moscow into two groups: those official opponents guiding the defense who accepted the original and unorthodox manuscript, and those other professors who were against the manuscript’s acceptance. The book's depiction of the role of the carnival, the temporary suspension of social order and licentious behavior, was the cause of many arguments that ceased only when the government intervened. Bakhtin was denied a doctorate and granted a lesser degree by the State Accrediting Bureau. Later, Bakhtin was invited back to Saransk where he took on the position of chairman of the General Literature Department at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute. When, in 1957, the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute made the transition from a teachers college to a university, Bakhtin became head of the Department of Russian and World Literature. In 1961 Bakhtin’s deteriorating health forced him to retire, and in 1969, in search of medical attention, Bakhtin moved back to Moscow where he resided until his death in 1975 (Holquist, xxi-xxvi).
Due to the fact that Bakhtin’s works and ideas gained such enormous popularity only after his death, the details of Bakhtin’s life have been reconstructed and their accuracy is in question. Access to Russian archival information during Bakhtin’s life is limited. It is only after the archives became public that scholars realized that much of what they thought they knew about the details of Bakhtin’s life was false or skewed largely by Bakhtin himself (Hirschkop, 2).
Toward a Philosophy of the Act, a literal translation of K filosofii postupka, was first published in Russia in 1986. The manuscript of this early work was found in bad condition with pages missing and sections of text that were illegible. It is for this reason that this philosophical essay appears today as a fragment of an unfinished work. The extant version of Toward a Philosophy of the Act consists of only an introduction, of which the first few pages are missing, and part one of the full text. However, Bakhtin’s intentions for the work were not altogether lost, for he provided an outline in the introduction in which he stated that the essay was to contain four parts (Liapunov, xvii). The first part of the essay deals with the analysis of the performed acts or deeds that comprise the actual world, “the world actually experienced, and not the merely thinkable world.” For the three subsequent and unfinished sections, Bakhtin lays out the topics he intends to discuss. Part two was to deal with aesthetic activity and the ethics of artistic creation; the third with the ethics of politics; and the fourth with religion (Bakhtin, 54).
Toward a Philosophy of the Act is one of Bakhtin’s early works concerning ethics and aesthetics, and is more philosophical in tone than his later literary criticism. Bakhtin lays out three claims regarding the acknowledgment of the uniqueness of one’s participation in ‘Being’: 1) I both actively and passively participate in Being 2) my uniqueness is given but it simultaneously exists only to the degree to which I actualize this uniqueness (in other words, it is in the performed act and deed that has yet to be achieved) 3) because I am actual and irreplaceable I must actualize my uniqueness. Bakhtin states: “It is in relation to the whole actual unity that my unique ought arises from my unique place in Being” (Bakhtin, 41). According to Bakhtin, the ‘I’ cannot maintain neutrality toward moral and ethical demands that manifest themselves as one’s own voice of conscience (Hirschkop, 12-14).
It is here also that Bakhtin introduces an architectonic model of the human psyche which consists of three components: “I-for-myself”, “I-for-the-other”, and “other-for-me.” The I-for-myself is an unreliable source of self-identity, and Bakhtin argues that it is through the I-for-the-other that human beings develop a sense of self-identity because it serves as an amalgamation of the way in which others view me. Conversely, other-for-me describes the way in which others incorporate my perceptions of them into their own self-identity. Identity, as Bakhtin describes it here, does not belong merely to the individual; rather, it is shared by all (Emerson and Morson).
During his time in Leningrad, Bakhtin shifted his focus away from the philosophical treatment of the relation of the self and other. Through his engagement with the texts of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bakhtin began to develop a new language for discussing this relationship, introducing new terms like dialogism, the unfinalizable self and polyphony. He compiled these notions in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Oeuvre (1929), later translated into English and republished as Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1963) with an added chapter on the concept of carnival. This text had the effect of helping to rehabilitate the critical view of Dostoevsky as an author and artist.
Dostoevsky had been considered many things: religious prophet, pre-Freudian psychologist and existentialist philosopher, but as a novelist his style was considered messy and lacking any real artistic merit. Bakhtin gave the world a language for discussing the features of Dostoevsky's artistic vision. Bakhtin argued that the reason Dostoevsky's texts had no overarching plot design was not a flaw in his artistic ability, but due to the nature of his artistic vision.
Bakhtin calls Dostoevsky's novels polyphonic, or many-voiced, as opposed to homophonic, or single-voiced. In a homophonic novel, there is a single voice that prevails. That is the voice of the author, or the narrator, the implied author. There is a design, a plot imposed from without. Dostoevsky does not have the same artistic vision. His texts are generally criticized as "messy" because they are not driven by plot. The logic and direction of the story emerges from within, from the interactions between the characters.
Bakhtin describes Dostoevsky's novels as dialogical. In fact, they do rely on dialogue more than most novels. They have been compared to drama due to the presence of so much dialogue, so much interaction between characters. But Bakhtin is not merely commenting on the amount of dialogue in the novels. Dialogical is contrasted with monological, or a single logic. Dostoevsky's novels are not monological, based on a single logic.
Dialogical also means that the characters in Dostoevsky are not fixed according to an authorial ideal. In most fiction, characters are set, fixed. They are either a function of the plot, as in folk tales and most short stories, or, as in the realist novel, they act in ways that are prescribed by their social class or milieu. Characters reveal their essential characteristics through the text, serving as mouthpieces for the author intentions and interacting according to a predetermined authorial design. Dostoevsky's characters are not bound by the conventions of realist fiction. They represent ideas, so that when they interact with other characters—which is to say, come into contact with other ideas—they enter into a dialogue which acts upon them and changes them. In Bakhtin's language, they are "penetrated by the word of the other."
In Bakhtin's terminology, Dostoevsky's characters are always unfinished and unfinalizable; they are works in progress. His characters are always penetrated by the word of the other, which means that they are always uncertain, evaluating their ideas, or, what is ironically referred to as "self-conscious." Bakhtin demonstrates that this "self-consciousness" is really being conscious of the other and unsure of the self. Thus, the word of the other becomes an important component of what is traditionally understood as "the self."
Bakhtin addresses this point in an interview prior to his death: "In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really 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" (New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993). As such, Bakhtin's philosophy greatly respected the influences of others on a self: not just in terms of how a person comes to be, but even in how a person thinks and how a person sees oneself truthfully.
Bakhtin found in Dostoevsky's work a representation of the polyphonic novel, that is, a novel with not one fixed voice (the author's), but many interpenetrating voices acting upon each other. For Bakhtin, Dostoevsky is the only artist who is capable of giving each of his main characters their own unique voice and logic that is not predetermined by authorial design, but in the interplay of ideas.
Readers may find that this conception reflects the idea of the soul; Bakhtin had strong roots in Christianity and in the Neo-Kantian school led by Hermann Cohen, both of which emphasized the importance of an individual's potentially infinite capability, worth, and the hidden soul.
Bakhtin's rejected dissertation, Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on the French renaissance poet François Rabelais, was ultimately published in 1965 under the title, Rabelais and His World.
Now a classic of Renaissance studies, Rabelais and His World is considered one of Bakhtin’s most important texts. Bakhtin explores Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (Clark and Holquist, 295), declaring that for centuries Rabelais’ book had been misunderstood. The purpose of Rabelais and His World was to clarify Rabelais’ intentions. Bakhtin attempts to recover sections of Gargantua and Pantagruel that, in the past, were either ignored or suppressed, conducting an analysis of the Renaissance social system in order to discover the balance between language that was permitted and language which was not. Through by this analysis Bakhtin pinpoints two important subtexts in Rabelais' work: the first is social institution of carnival, and the second is grotesque realism which is defined as a literary mode. Bakhtin studies the interaction between the social and the literary, as well as the meaning of the body (Clark and Holquist, 297-299).
For Bakhtin, carnival is associated with the collectivity; those attending a carnival do not merely constitute a crowd. Rather, taken as a whole, the carnival is organized in a way that defies socioeconomic and political organization, turning it on its head (Clark and Holquist, 302). The carnival is a release from the normal socio-political order, a kind of utopia in which, according to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (Bakhtin, 10). At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space allows the individual to feel he is a part of the collectivity, beyond the normal political and social barriers. Through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community (Clark and Holquist, 302).
Through the focus on the body Bakhtin connects the notion of carnival to the grotesque. The grotesque describes the carnival's emphasis on bodily changes through eating, evacuation, and sexuality. The collectivity partaking in the carnival becomes aware of its unity through the momentary disruption of the established order by focusing on feasting and other demands of the body.
The Dialogic Imagination is a compilation of four essays concerning language and the novel: “Epic and Novel,” “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” and “Discourse in the Novel.” Bakhtin became a champion of the novel, not only those of Dostoevsky, but as a genre whose importance had generally been ranked below that of poetry. In the nineteenth century, the novel as a literary genre became increasingly popular, but for most of its history it has been an area of study often disregarded. It is through the essays contained within The Dialogic Imagination that Bakhtin introduces the concepts of heteroglossia and chronotope, making a significant contribution to the realm of literary scholarship (Holquist, xxvi).
In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin demonstrates the novel’s distinct nature by contrasting it with the epic. By doing so, Bakhtin shows that the novel is well suited to the post-industrial civilization in which we live because it flourishes on diversity. It is this same diversity that the epic attempts to eliminate from the world. According to Bakhtin, the novel as a genre is unique in that it is able to embrace, ingest, and devour other genres while still maintaining its status as a novel. Other genres, however, cannot emulate the novel without damaging their own distinct identity (Holquist, xxxii).
“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” introduces Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope. The word "chronotope," taken from the Greek chronos and topos literally means “time space.” Bakhtin defines it as “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (Bakhtin, 84). The relationship of time and space in the novel is not merely a reflection of nature. Novelists create entire worlds, one aspect of which is their treatment of time and space. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment for example takes place almost exclusively in cramped spaces, hallways, attacks, etc. Time can either be sped up or slowed down depending on the literary effect the author seeks to create. Bakhtin does not view time and space as the neutral background against which the action of the novel takes place, but an integral part of the artist's creation.
The final essay, “Discourse in the Novel”, is considered one of Bakhtin’s most complete statements concerning his philosophy of language. It is here that Bakhtin provides a model for a history of discourse, introducing the concept of heteroglossia (многоязычие) (Holquist, xxxiii). The term heteroglossia, another term composed of two words that is literally translated as "different voices," refers to the qualities of a language that are extralinguistic, but common to all languages. These include qualities such as perspective, evaluation, and ideological positioning. In this way most languages are incapable of neutrality, for every word is inextricably bound to the context in which it lives (Farmer, xviii).
In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays Bakhtin moves away from the novel and concerns himself with the problems of method and the nature of culture. There are six essays that comprise this compilation: “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff,” “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism,” “The Problem of Speech Genres,” “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis,” “From Notes Made in 1970-71,” and “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences.”
“The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism” is a fragment from one of Bakhtin’s lost books. The publishing house to which Bakhtin had submitted the full manuscript was blown up during the German invasion and Bakhtin was in possession of only the prospectus. It is notable for Bakhtin's sometimes-cavalier attitude toward his work; due to a shortage of paper during the war, Bakhtin began using his manuscript to roll cigarettes. Only a portion of the opening section remains. The remaining section, the one that did not go up in smoke, deals primarily with Goethe (Holquist, xiii).
“The Problem of Speech Genres” deals with the difference between Saussurean linguistics and language as a living dialogue (translinguistics). A dense essay on a topic that he had planned a book length work, Bakhtin distinguishes between literary and everyday language. According to Bakhtin, genres exist not merely in language, but rather in communication. Genres have primarily been studied only within the realm of rhetoric and literature, but each discipline draws largely on genres that exist outside both rhetoric and literature. These extraliterary genres have remained largely unexplored. Bakhtin makes the distinction between primary genres and secondary genres. Primary genres legislate those words, phrases, and expressions that are acceptable in everyday life; various types of text such as legal, scientific, etc, characterize secondary genres.
“The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis” is a compilation of the thoughts Bakhtin recorded in his notebooks. It is significant because here Bakhtin addresses the manner in which a text relates to its context. Speakers, Bakhtin claims, shape an utterance according to three variables: the object of discourse, the immediate addressee, and a superaddressee. This is what Bakhtin describes as the tertiary nature of dialogue. This third element, or "superaddressee" represents the larger context of dialogue, whether it is understood as the social element, language or God.
Famously, some of the works which bear the names of Bakhtin's close friends V. N. Vološinov and P. N. Medvedev have been attributed to Bakhtin—particularly The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship and Marxism and Philosophy of Language. These claims originated in the early 1970s and received their earliest full articulation in English in Clark and Holquist's 1984 biography of Bakhtin. In the years since then, however, most scholars have come to agree that Vološinov and Medvedev ought to be considered the true authors of these works. Although Bakhtin undoubtedly influenced these scholars and may even have had a hand in composing the works attributed to them, it now seems clear that if it was necessary to attribute authorship of these works to one person, Vološinov and Medvedev respectively should receive credit.
Note: for a more complete list, please see the glossary in The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, from which these terms are excerpted.
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