Bakhtin, Mikhail

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Bakhtin, Mikhail

Peter Hitchcock

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895—1975) has emerged as a major analyst of the ways we understand culture in general and the novel in particular. Rediscovered in Russian intellectual life in the late 1950s, he has since become a significant touchstone in cultural analysis. While he lived in relative obscurity in the Soviet Union in his middle years, by the end of his life Bakhtin had achieved a major reputation in thinking about genre, discourse, time and space, ethics, and historical poetics. Some of the terms we associate with his work, such as chronotope, dialogism, the carnivalesque, the grotesque, architectonics, exotopy, heteroglossia, and eventness have become influential keywords in contemporary critique. With conferences, journals, institutes, and a large body of secondary material devoted to his work, Bakhtin has become an iconic figure in writing and research in the humanities, but not one who is beyond controversy and heated academic dispute. For instance, there has been much disagreement over Bakhtin's authorship of several texts by Ivan Ivanovich Kanaev (1893—1963), Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev (1891—1938), and Valerian Nikolaevich Voloshinov (ca. 1894—1936), associates of what would become known as the Bakhtin Circle. This is not the place to enter this debate, but clearly the attribution in particular of Formalny metod v literaturovedeni (1928, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship) by Medvedev and Marksizm i filosofiya yazyka (1929, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) by Voloshinov to Bakhtin extends and deepens the critical range of his interests. There is also evidence Bakhtin plagiarized Ernst Cassirer (1874—1945), among others, for his book on Rabelais, although for the most part this has not hurt Bakhtin's burgeoning reputation (Poole).

Bakhtin was born in Orel, south of Moscow but, because his father was a bank executive who was transferred frequently, the family moved frequently during his youth before he began attending St. Petersburg (Petrograd) University in 1914. A classicist, Bakhtin became well-versed in the main currents of Western philosophy, and was caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the time primarily because of the philosophical issues it raised. In Nevel and then later Vitebsk (both in what is now Belarus) Bakhtin associated with a number of critical young thinkers, including Voloshinov, Medvedev, and Lev Pumpianski (1891—1940), and engaged in vital discussions that would inform his worldview for the rest of his life. Some of these debates turned on what was appropriate to the revolutionary period; some, like the centrality of Neo-Kantianism, were more abstract in nature. Bakhtin married in Vitebsk and returned to Petrograd/Leningrad in 1924. By 1929 he ran afoul of the new authoritarianism and intolerance in Soviet life and was accused of working for the Russian Orthodox Church. His sentence, ten years in the Solovetsky Islands labor camp, meant certain death, but because of the intervention of friends and his poor health (Bakhtin suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone disease that would eventually require the amputation of his right leg in 1938) he was “granted” six years of internal exile in Kazakhstan.

Bakhtin had his first academic appointment in 1936 at Mordovia State Teachers College in Saransk as an instructor in Russian and world literature. Because of the purges and Bakhtin's unorthodoxy (religion notwithstanding) he maintained a low profile until he defended his dissertation on François Rabelais in 1946 in Moscow but then quickly returned to Saransk, where he taught until his retirement in 1961. Thanks to the diligence of some graduate students who had become followers of his ideas Bakhtin's last years were notably busy, both with organizing older texts and developing new ideas. He died in Moscow from emphysema in 1975.

Not all of Bakhtin's concepts are focused on the novel (he is as much a philosopher of I and Other as anything else), but the novel was an important fulcrum in his thinking and his contributions to the study of the novel are inestimable. Even in his early philosophical essays, some of which are collected in Art and Answerability (1990) and Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1993), Bakhtin reveals a trenchant commitment to the novel's possibility as a preeminent mode of human expression. Yet these works also display a thinker concerned about matters like authorship and responsibility (aesthetic and social) in general. In part this reflects the influence of neo-Kantianism on Bakhtin's ideas at that time, particularly the work ofHermann Cohen (1842—1918) and the Marburg School. But the more Bakhtin considered Being and the substance of the “I” the more his thought suggests not just a philosophical method but also a way of writing and reading. For instance, when considering Bakhtin's tripartite scheme for identity (I-for-myself, I-for-an Other, an Other-for-me) or the vexed but reciprocal relationship between “author” and “hero,” one is also coming to terms with the connections between writers and readers of texts. Bakhtin does not just urge a laudable responsibility across all of these relations, but a sense of co-participation and co-production in such processes, activities where ideas like “outsideness,” “eventness,” and “unfinalizability” mark the insufficiency of individualist or monadic conceptions of self in what is basically social participation. Vnenakhodimost (exotopy, or “outsideness”), in this light, is actually about the importance of perspective in fulfilling the aesthetic work of a text, that it can be completed, as it were, in its interaction with another person, outside, or beyond the text, and certainly beyond the idea of an author as the sole arbiter of that text's creation. Similarly, “eventness” accentuates both the process of Being as itself an event, something concrete and specific, and the sense that its tempero-spatial coordinates include the participation of another in Being's formation. Event, therefore, is about co-being, and again this is consistent with Bakhtin's elaboration of authoring. “Unfinalizability” is both about an openness in Being and in what makes a text textual, and as such lies at the root of what we understand from Bakhtin as dialogism, an extension in the possibility of Being dependent on interaction; a dialogue, therefore, that resists and refuses the closure of a final word.

While some critics have attempted to unify all of Bakhtin's concepts under umbrella terms like “architectonics” or “prosaics,” the elaboration of dialogism in his work tends to favor an openness to reflexivity, revision and, frankly, contradiction. Bakhtin's major works on the novel include Problemy tvorchestva Dostoyevskogo (1929, Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics), Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaya kultura srednevekovya i Renessansa (1965, Rabelais and His World), and an incomplete and largely lost manuscript on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the bildungsroman. The English language collection, The Dialogic Imagination (1975), while not a book “imagined” by Bakhtin, is also nevertheless a vital expression of Bakhtin's major novelistic concerns. The “disputed texts” meanwhile, provide a materialist understanding of criticism and specific branches of linguistics.

In the book on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin emphasizes the author's spatial prerogatives, the ways in which characters are situated by perspective, by their mutually determining positions in space. At this level, the dialogic refers not just to extant exchanges of dialogue but to the spatial dynamics in which such dialogue becomes possible. Similarly, Bakhtin is less at pains to show Dostoyevsky caught up in an idea of representation but is more concerned to explore how ideas themselves get represented in the novels. This means both respecting authorial intent while also permitting “loopholes” in meaning and existence as that which might escape the traditional dyad of author and character. The result is a reading of Dostoyevsky overdetermined by a multiplicity of possible voices, perspectives in dialogue and disputation gathered up by the term “polyphony.” When we think of such voices we must not only consider speakers but conditions, the forces that give multiplicity its materiality at any one moment. The full range of discursive possibility from which polyphony may be drawn is called “heteroglossia” and it is the abstruse profusion of heteroglossia that ensures life in and through the word. It is unclear sometimes whether Dostoyevsky's work can bear the weight of Bakhtin's conceptual universe and it is useful, therefore, to use the “problems” in the book's title to refer also to the substance of Bakhtin's dialogic paradigm (in a sense, of course, such contention is the very proof of Bakhtin's position).

The book on François Rabelais is looser conceptually but because of the subject is more alive critically. One might say Bakhtin finds in Rabelais a critical condition for laughter as a resource of hope in a world that had seemed to subtend it. This does not mean Bakhtin simply articulates a ribald answer to the dark days of WWII and Stalinism, although that form of resistance is notable, but rather he finds in Rabelais's discursive reverie some important keys to the rejuvenation of public energy. In the ritual overturning and ridicule of social hierarchy, scenes of carnivalesque excess, Bakhtin does not locate revolutionary desire as such, but nevertheless he appreciates deeply its spirit of renewal and the life-giving forms of popular culture in general (see COMEDY). Rabelais's attention to the lurid and scatological aspects of French public discourse, themselves subject to Rabelaisian exaggeration and hyperbole, unmasks the prejudices in piety and the connections between privacy and privation. To view this as a bottom-up analysis of the world order would itself be an exaggeration, but Bakhtin usefully elaborates how human excess, an exuberance epitomized by the human body and its processes, reserves the right to question the imposition of right in hierarchical or official discourses. And this, of course, largely defines the terrain of the novel's raison d'être and its dialogic inconstancy.

Bakhtin's interest in Goethe in part melds the philosophical and novelistic aspects of his critical method and underlines the fact that his poetics had both a genealogical and historical import. Without Bakhtin's bildungsroman project we can only conjecture the full extent to which Goethe was influential in his sustained investigations of the novel's potential. Like Rabelais, Goethe, for Bakhtin, was an example of a writer who took from ancient literature a vision of a “fully exteriorized individual” (Dialogic Imagination, 136) and placed it on a new plane. The exteriority in question is that of the “popular chronotope of the public square” (135) and the new plane accords with Bakhtin's conception of novelness or novelization. The connection between ancient literature (primarily Greek and Roman texts) and Bakhtin's favorite novelists does not reflect the formal consistency of the novel but is symptomatic of what he believes is its special task: to reveal the limits of any extant literary system and to challenge the nature of its prescriptions. When Goethe refers to world literature it is, for Bakhtin, a worldliness premised on the novel's interrogative propensity; indeed, it renders dialogic worlds. To say this breaks from conventional histories of the novel and formal exegeses would be an understatement (see HISTORY).

But Bakhtin's critical tenacity and idiosyncrasy can make for some practical misadventures. He comes close to hypostatizing the novel by privileging it and, while his resistance to deadening modes of realism is refreshing, he wants the novel to do too much work culturally, just as he wants philosophy to do too much spiritually. And, although he might want to avoid the dead ends of character analysis, for instance, the lure of dialogism as dialogue has inspired a generation of critics to do just that, in a many-voiced manner, of course. Similarly, an adherence to the novel's democratizing instincts has been read to sanction a kind of aesthetic liberalism at some remove from the realities of cultural hierarchization in an otherwise democratic exchange. It is notable that in his later essays Bakhtin both fell foul to such exuberance himself while at the same time offering a somewhat more circumspect appreciation of the novel's contribution to dialogic interaction. In the essays gathered for the collection Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986) one notes that Bakhtin's concern for modes of social expressivity finds speech itself a primary genre, while the novel is listed as a secondary one. Genres of speech condition everyday interaction in a manner to which the novel contributes but does not necessarily lead. True, such genres are malleable, but their levels of structural determination in the everyday are read as decisive in a way that in the novel they might be merely symptomatic. This is not to demote the literary and its importance for Bakhtin but is rather to remark upon a conceptual nuance that Bakhtin himself found difficult to apply across the range of his critical interests. There are many reasons for this, including perhaps the effects of a paucity of genuine intellectual dialogue for long periods of Bakhtin's life, but it does mean that summary assessments of his work, like the theory of dialogism itself, are highly sensitive to the position from which the perception of it begins.

Fortunately, the key works in Bakhtin studies are aware of this difficulty and address it in a variety of innovative ways. An early foray into this field is Tzvetan Todorov's The Dialogical Principle (1984). Two more substantial contributions are Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) and Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson's Mikhail Bakhtin (1990). The coincidence of titles should not be taken to mean a consonance of critical positions. Emerson's The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (1997) provides a thoughtful reconsideration of key debates, while Ken Hirschkop's Mikhail Bakhtin (1999) offers a polemical analysis alive to Bakhtinian possibilities as well as limits. Galin Tihanov's Master and Slave (2000) is a pertinent intellectual and critical history of Bakhtin in relation to Lukács. Holquist's Dialogism (1990) gives a lively overview of core Bakhtinian concepts. There are dozens of edited essay collections and conference proceedings now available, and for references one should consult the Bakhtin Centre, The Centre (initiated by David Shepherd, now directed by Craig Brandist) at the University of Sheffield is by far the most useful reference point for Bakhtin studies in any language and over the years has provided not only a venue for Bakhtin conferences and individual lectures but has acted as a research hub for Bakhtin scholars from around the world. One of its core missions has been to translate and edit a projected seven-volume collected works of Bakhtin being produced in Russia. It is hoped that this translation might also be available digitally, an extension in genre that Bakhtin would surely have appreciated.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, Formalism, Intertextuality, Georg Lukács, Novel Theory (20th century), Parody/satire.


1. Bakhtin, M.M. (1929), Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics.

2. Bakhtin, M.M. (1965), Rabelais and His World.

3. Bakhtin, M.M. (1981), The Dialogic Imagination.

4. Bakhtin, M.M. (1986), Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.

5. Bakhtin, M.M. (1990), Art and Answerability.

6. Bakhtin, M.M. (1993), Toward a Philosophy of the Act.

7. Pechey, G. (2007), Mikhail Bakhtin.

8. Pereen, E. (2007), Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture.

9. Poole, B. (1998), “Bakhtin and Cassirer,” South Atlantic Quarterly 97:537—78.