Mikhail Bakhtin
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Mikhail Bakhtin

Alastair Renfrew

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Mikhail Bakhtin

Alastair Renfrew

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Mikhail Bakhtin was one of the twentieth century's most influential literary theorists. This accessible introduction to his thought begins with the questions 'Why Bakhtin?' and 'Who was Bakhtin?', before dealing in detail with his ideas on authorship and subjecthood, language, dialogism, heteroglossia and the novel, the chronotope, and the carnivalesque. True to their dialogic spirit, these ideas are presented not as a fixed body of knowledge, but rather as living and evolving entities, as ways of approaching not only the most persistent questions of language and literature, but also issues that are relevant across the full range of Humanities disciplines. Bakhtin emerges in the process as a key thinker for the Humanities in the twenty-first century.

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Critica letteraria


DOI: 10.4324/9780203625507-1
Mikhail Mikhaiovich Bakhtin (1895–1975) was without doubt the most astonishingly productive thinker in the Humanities to emerge from Soviet Russia and one of the twentieth century’s most significant theoreticians of literature. This book will show that Bakhtin’s ideas remain crucial for literary studies, but also that his approach to literature remains, indeed, astonishingly productive across the full range of the contemporary Humanities. Bakhtin is a thinker who not only reconceives the relationship between literature and other disciplines, but who is also ultimately able to demonstrate the vital and common basis of all Humanities disciplines – of all disciplines that have writing at their conceptual and methodological core. As both the Soviet context and the twentieth century itself recede into history, he has become one of the most important thinkers for the Humanities in the twenty-first century.
Bakhtin is, in fact, an exemplary thinker for the contemporary Humanities, for a number of reasons: because his broad philosophical grounding and profoundly ethical focus does not conflict with, but rather enhances, his literary conception; because his investment in ideas of collectivity does not contradict his enduring commitment to the individual consciousness; and because his best-known ideas – the dialogic, heteroglossia, chronotope, carnival – emerge from a lifelong engagement with the novel form, but find renewed force and justification beyond the purely literary domain.
The roots of Bakhtin’s attraction lie to some extent in the fact that, although he became known in the West during a period of huge growth of interest in literary and cultural theory in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, his thought does not share the central tendency of the key theoretical paradigms such as Structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction. These paradigms, for all the many and profound ways in which they diverge from and even contradict one another, are nonetheless related by a common characteristic: they are all broadly hermeneuticist, that is, they all imply the existence of another ‘text’ beneath the surface or in the interstices of the text or discourse under interpretation. The meaning of any utterance has increasingly been held to lie somewhere beneath or beyond the surface intention of its speaker or author – to the point where the very presence of an author of a literary work or a ‘subject’ of discourse comes into question. For Bakhtin, however, the presence and self-constitution of the speaking subject (sometimes, indeed, an author) lies at the heart of any process of human understanding; it is the inalienable core of his thought. He offers, therefore, a way of understanding the complex relationship between text and world on the basis of the presence of the human subject (or subjects) without colluding in crude, one-dimensional theories of intentionality. Bakhtin never departs from a core Humanistic position, but instead theorizes (re-theorizes) the conditions of possibility of Humanism ‘after theory’ by theorizing the various modes of being and expression – literary and non-literary – of the living, speaking subject. Meaning for Bakhtin is irreducibly present in, but not simplistically reducible to, the text; it is what philosophers would call ‘immanent’. This, in the end, is what texts (and speech) are for.
Another aspect of Bakhtin’s attraction is that he consistently approaches questions of the construction of the human subject, of meaning and of ethics not through the formal lens of philosophy or linguistics, but through the endlessly diffuse lens of literature. His thought returns again and again to the question of what is at stake in the connection between literature and the world beyond it, but it always maintains the primacy of the text, which is never reduced in Bakhtin’s hands to the status of a mere reflection of something else. The ‘kind’ of literature Bakhtin is primarily interested in is the novel, or at least the ways in which novels (or some novels) manifest his idea of ‘novelness’, which becomes at different points a near synonym for his key category of the dialogic. Reading Bakhtin can therefore provide, at the most basic of levels, a range of uniquely powerful insights into the novel, but it can also, as we have suggested, help us expand upon those insights in ways that exceed the scope of the novel or even literature itself, contextualizing it against what Bakhtin will call the ‘universal’ of the dialogic. The nature of boundaries ‘between’ literature and the world, or more properly, the way these and other phenomena merge across or entirely deconstruct boundaries, is what makes reading Bakhtin a task that generates often unexpected rewards.
The phenomenon that dramatizes and binds together the various elements of Bakhtin’s work, more so even than literature, is language. Whether in the context of everyday life, in the mouths of real people or on the pages of literary works, in the mouths of Bakhtin’s no less real ‘authors and heroes’, language both embodies and provides access to the various phases of human experience. Bakhtin and his colleagues, in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the fullness of such experience, will offer their own theory of language, built around the ‘utterance’ as the emblem of a ‘living language’, as opposed to the rules and conventions of language as an abstract system. Language may be the stuff of life as it is lived and at the same time the self-evident point of embarkation for literary study, but it is also the common denominator of the Humanities – it is the high road of interdisciplinarity. Bakhtin’s invocation in the related fields of sociolinguistics, anthropology, social theory, and of course philosophy, from which he initially comes, is a testament to the fact that what is important for and in Bakhtin – the construction and transmission of meaning and the relation of the self to the other – is central to the Humanities project at large. The best-known works of Bakhtin’s middle period, such as his book on Dostoevsky and ‘Discourse in the Novel’, are all in some ways dependent on the elaboration of a theory of language – a ‘trans-linguistics’ as we will call it in Chapter 5. His later and sometimes fragmentary ‘essays’ of the 1960s and 1970s make more explicit the relationship between that theory of language and a central, binding idea of the Humanities. The questions raised there – regarding the status of the text, the relationship of lived experience to its literary or theoretical inscription – are the questions that resound through the broad mainstream of the contemporary Humanities, manifest in each of its component disciplines in different ways – but in ways that can be routed and related through Bakhtin.
This book will begin, however, by returning to Bakhtin’s earliest work, written but unpublished in the 1920s, in order to explore the model of self-other relations developed there, which underpins his later ideas on the significance of language and the more familiar categories of dialogism, heteroglossia, chronotope and carnival. It will then deal with what might be regarded as a key turning point in Bakhtin’s life and work, the alignment of his work with the work of his friends and colleagues Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, and, especially, the significance of the former in relation to what has come to be known as the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and the Humanities more broadly. On this dual basis, we will then devote separate chapters to dialogism, heteroglossia, chronotope and carnival, in each case tracing the ways in which these ideas evolve in a process of mutual definition with the ‘core’ of Bakhtin’s initial conception. This trajectory will be completed by a chapter on genre, which brings together strands from every phase of Bakhtin’s work and reconnects to some of the questions we have already encountered, questions of the ‘boundaries’ between literature and life. The book will then conclude with a brief assessment not so much of Bakhtin’s influence, but of his continuing usefulness, both to readers interested primarily in literature and in the context of the Humanities in general.
The book can be read in three ways: first, some readers may wish simply to read continuously from the first chapter to the last, encountering Bakhtin’s major concepts in the context of his thought as a whole and in the process of its evolution; other readers might wish to begin with the chapter on dialogism, move through the mature concepts of heteroglossia, chronotope and carnival, and then return to the earlier chapters in order to explore the roots from which they emerged; finally, the chapters can be read separately as individual treatments of specific concepts, the reader accepting or rejecting invitations to connect with other areas of Bakhtin’s thought according to his or her own inclination.
Bakhtin prefaced one of his own early works, ‘The Problem of Content, Material and Form in Verbal Art’, with a declaration of its freedom ‘from the superfluous ballast of citation and reference, [ 
 ] unnecessary for the competent reader, and of no help whatever to the incompetent reader’ (PCMF 257). While it is not possible in the present context to duplicate Bakhtin’s rather cavalier attitude, citation and reference is focused heavily on Bakhtin’s own writings (and relevant literary exemplars) and has been kept to a minimum in relation to other critical and theoretical sources. Citation is from the editions referred to in the ‘Abbreviations’ section at the beginning of the book, full details of which are given under ‘Further reading’ at the end; translations have been modified slightly in certain cases.
Throughout the book, as is hopefully already abundantly clear, we will return again and again to the fundamentally literary significance of Bakhtin’s work, the sense in which his ideas cannot live in separation from literary categories, and at the same time to its similarly marked portability, the sense in which his ideas demand to be understood – and exercise profound effects – in contexts that are not conventionally regarded as ‘literary’. If this book has a core hypothesis of its own, it is that the Bakhtin who provides powerful resources for the study of literature is entirely consistent with the Bakhtin who stands at the heart of a differently conceived Humanities. In both the content and the practice of his thought, Bakhtin casts the boundaries between disciplines in an entirely different light – a light that only becomes fully visible after Bakhtin.
First, however, consistent with Bakhtin’s insistence on the presence and significance of the living, speaking subject, with his fearlessness in the face of ‘biographical’ reductiveness, we will consider the no less essential question of ‘who’ Bakhtin was.


DOI: 10.4324/9780203625507-2
Bakhtin lived the majority of his life in almost complete obscurity, before enjoying a belated and unexpected period of academic fame in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. He published only one significant book, on the great Russian novelist of the nineteenth century, Fedor Dostoevsky (1821–81), close to the time at which it was written; most of his work saw the light of day only after his death, with the major exception of another book, on the Renaissance author François Rabelais (c. 1494–1553), which was published in 1965, almost thirty years after it was begun. At the time of his death in 1975, Bakhtin was known outside the Soviet Union (and outside a small circle of Western Slavists) only as the author of the book on Rabelais, the central idea of which – carnival – had found a welcoming audience on publication in English translation in 1968. The details of his biography and career, particularly certain aspects of his earlier life and his time in exile in the 1930s, have acquired a sense of mystery, which only intensified as his name became recognized in the West. His name and his significance have been consistently surrounded by a certain almost mythical aura, which, although it helped propel him towards an extensive readership, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, has tended to obscure the nature and value of his thought. This makes it all the more important, before addressing the question of why Bakhtin’s thought remains of use to us and elucidating his key ideas, to deal first with how ‘Bakhtin’ has been mediated and to examine with more than the usual degree of caution the ways in which the canon of his work and the changing perceptions of his persona have been constructed.
There are many good reasons why Bakhtin’s work and personality have been shrouded in doubt, and even mystery: the cultural and political circumstances of the late 1910s and 1920s in Russia and the Soviet Union, which problematized and in many cases destroyed the public lives of countless scholars, critics and writers; the Stalinist era that followed, in which individuals or cultural tendencies that would not or could not make a bargain with State ideology were excluded or annihilated, forcing Russian intellectual culture into a kind of ice age; the consequently fractured process of the publication of Bakhtin’s work in Russia, where no major critical or theoretical work appeared in his name between 1929 and 1963; the fact that a number of texts published under the names of Bakhtin’s friends and colleagues, Valentin Voloshinov (1895–1936) and Pavel Medvedev (1892–1938), were subsequently claimed to be the work of Bakhtin himself; and, finally, the rather fractured process of the translation of his work into English, which was rendered all the more problematic in that it has been accompanied by the intermittent appearance of ‘new’ material in Russia.
There are also a number of less obvious – but nevertheless indisputably significant – reasons why Bakhtin has acquired this sense of mystery. Consistent with one of the enduring stereotypes of Soviet Russia, he was sent into exile in 1930 – not, as the initial sentence decreed, to a labour camp, where the fragile Bakhtin would almost certainly have perished, but to a job as a bookkeeper in Kustanai in distant Kazakhstan. The sentence was commuted because of Bakhtin’s poor state of health and because of the interventions of two extremely influential cultural figures: Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky had been reviewed favourably by the former People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii (1875–1933), and the most politically influential writer of the period, Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), intervened personally on Bakhtin’s behalf. Bakhtin’s health would in fact play a doubly significant role in his mythologization: the osteomyelitis that effectively saved his life in 1930 would later result in the amputation of his left leg at the knee, leaving the amputee scholar with the most dramatic bodily symbol of his victimhood – and of his survivorhood.
Bakhtin himself was not averse to myth-making. He is a consistently unreliable source for his own biography and appears, for example, to have borrowed parts of his brother Nikolai’s biography in order to bolster an extremely thin – and possibly non-existent – formal higher education: Bakhtin may never have attended university, as he claimed, and he certainly never graduated. He was more tentative, much later in life, regarding the supposition that he had come from an aristocratic background, a caution not shared by the Ă©migrĂ© Nikolai, who was keen to emphasize their father’s status as a fallen noble as opposed to the bourgeois banker he in fact was. Neither version of the Bakhtins’ background was particularly promising at the most class-conscious points in Soviet history, but the mythological slippage is typical.
Bakhtin is also a contradictory witness in the matter of the authorship of Voloshinov’s Freudianism (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) and Medvedev’s The Formal Method in Literary Studies (1928), sometimes implying his own participation, at the very least, and at other times steadfastly defending the authorship of his friends. He often displays the casual disregard for academic convention befitting someone who lived an entire life outside, or on the periphery of, the academic system_ sections of Rabelais and His World, for example, appear to have been lifted wholesale from the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945). And the anecdotal evidence of contemporaries – often repeating Bakhtin’s own self-characterization – consistently emphasizes his unorthodoxy, mysticism, or even fatalism. This is never more dramatic than in the alleged fate of his book on the novel of education or Bildungsroman: the typescript may indeed have perished in the publisher’s offices under German bombing, but did the chain-smoking Bakhtin, starved of cigarette papers during the Nazi invasion, really roll the only surviving copy up and smoke it?
The key factor in catalysing all of these circumstances into a thoroughgoing myth pertains as much to Bakhtin’s ‘second life’ of rediscovery and transmission into the West as it does to his first of relative obscurity in the Soviet Union. The fragmented process of Bakhtin’s reception in the West was accompanied by – or perhaps, more accurately, caused – the rise of what has been described as the Bakhtin ‘industry’, which experienced its very own ‘boom’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sceptics have expressed surprise that, while other theorists – with the certain exception of the Frenc...